Trail Smoke Eaters face Vipers, Vees in division tilts

The 6-9-0-0 Smoke Eaters are coming off a home-and-home sweep of the Merritt Centennials.

The Trail Smoke Eaters take on a pair of Interior division teams going in opposite directions this weekend with a Friday tilt in Vernon against the fading Vipers, followed by a home game versus the league-leading Penticton Vees on Sunday.

The 6-9-0-0 Smoke Eaters are coming off a home-and-home sweep of the Merritt Centennials which included, after trailing 4-1 midway through the third period, a dramatic 5-4 comeback overtime victory.

As a result of the wins, Trail had two players receive honourable mention in the Player of the Week poll. Rookie goalie Linden Marshall picked up two wins stopping 46 of 47 shots for .979 save percentage and .681 goals against average, while veteran Jake Kauppila netted the hat trick, and overtime game winning goal in a first star effort against the Centennials last week.

Despite the good efforts, the PoW went to Wenatchee Wilds’ Joseph Drabin, who scored five goals and added four assists in a pair of wins over Surrey Grizzlies.

The Vipers, meanwhile, have lost three in a row, dropping to 8-9-0-1 after a  6-2 Wednesday night loss to the Salmon Arm Silverbacks, a 2-0 setback to the lowly Victoria Grizzlies on Saturday, and a 3-2 loss to West Kelowna Warriors Friday.

“I think we’re right up with them (Vernon) and have proven that even just by the results,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Nick Deschenes. “I think we’re with that team and when we play our best, we’re even above them.”

The Smokies will have an opportunity to prove that tonight when they take on the Snakes and former Smoke Eater Riley Brandt at Kal Tire Place in Vernon. The 18-year-old Brandt is third in scoring on the Vipers, netting seven goals and 15 points in 18 games, while amassing the most penalty minutes on his team with 42.

The Smokies have a much more difficult task on Sunday, when the Vees visit. Penticton hasn’t lost a game since its first opening season match against Salmon Arm, and have reeled off 15 straight victories since. What’s more, the Vees got even better last weekend when they traded for forward Nicholas Jones from the Sherwood Park Crusaders. Jones had played parts of two seasons with the NCAA Div. 1 Ohio State University, before returning to the junior ranks. Prior to joining Ohio State, Jones finished third in Alberta Junior Hockey League scoring in 2013-14 with 72 points in 52 games and his 41 goals was tops in the league.

“We are definitely a better team today than we were a week ago,” Vees coach-general manager Fred Harbinson told the Penticton Western News. “We get a kid that played on Canada West. We see it sometimes, a kid that maybe went a year early to school and didn’t get the opportunity behind certain guys. We’ve seen what a restart has done for Scott Conway coming back from school. Hopefully we will see the same for Nick Jones.”

Coincidentally, former Smoke Eater defenceman Joel Webb was part of the trade. To get Jones, the Vees sent forward Jason Lavallee and future considerations to the Flin Flon Bombers of the Saskatchewan Junior League for the playing rights of Webb. The Vees then flipped Webb, plus future considerations, to the Crusaders for Jones’ rights.

In the Smokies last meeting with the Vees on Oct. 7, Trail played brilliantly, leading 2-1 heading into the final period. However, the Smokies could not contain a vaunted Vees attack led by BCHL leading scorer Conway.  Trail outshot Penticton 27-22, but gave up four third-period goals, two to Conway, in a 5-3 loss.

“With Penticton, again we outplayed them the last time we played,” said Deschenes. “Things kind of fell apart in the end but I think these are lessons we hopefully learned and are moving forward.”

The two wins against the Cents have definitely been a step forward for the Smokies, finishing off the Cents in the third period in the 5-1 win last week, and mounting a stunning comeback in the second match. In addition to the third-period resurgence, Trail’s power play improved going 6-for-15 in the two matches after stuggling and going 6-for-55 in its first 13 games.

“It’s as simple as shooting the puck on net,” added Deschenes. “I’d like to say there is a secret play we have, but no it’s just putting pucks at the net.”

Trail plays Vernon tonight at 7 p.m. and faces off against the Vees at the Cominco Arena on Sunday at 3 p.m.