Following the Trail Smoke Eaters biggest win in its BCHL franchise history, the team goes back to work Friday to face its next challenge – the Wenatchee Wild.
The Smoke Eaters beat the Penticton Vees 4-2 in Game 7 of the Interior Division semifinal on Monday to advance to the Interior Division final and BCHL semifinal against the Wild, who eliminated the Vernon Vipers in six games.
“It’s been really exciting from my side, and just for the boys, and the organization,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Cam Keith. “But we have to move forward here.”
The Smoke Eaters start the series at the Town Toyota Center in Wenatchee on Friday, where the Wild put up the best home record (24-4-1-0) in the BCHL that included three wins over Trail during the regular season.
But after taking 2-of-4 from the Vees at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton, the Smoke Eater coach is confident the team can do the same across the line.
“It’s going to take the same kind of effort we had against Penticton, almost the same game plan,” said Keith. “We know we have to play our style of game, and not try to play Wenatchee’s style. We were successful when we had puck possession, slowed the game down, and more of a grind style of hockey rather than trade chance for chance.”
Wenatchee is led by BCHL scoring champion Jasper Weatherby, who counted 37 goals and 74 points this season, while defenceman Cooper Zech, 11-58-69, and forward A.J. Vanderbeck, 37-25-62, finished in the top 10. Weatherby hasn’t slowed his pace in the playoffs, netting 17 points in 10 games, but it is Wenatchee forward Sam Morton whose 18 points in 10 playoff games leads all shooters.
“Wenatchee has the same kind of build offensively,” said Keith. “They have ‘D’ that can jump up into the rush, and when you’re looking at (Vees defenceman) Jonny Tychonick, a kid that was really hard to stop, we’re looking at an even more offensive defenceman in Cooper Zech. And we were looking at Owen Sillinger, now we’re looking at an even more powerful Weatherby and Vanderbeck. They have more offensive fire-power now and they have just as good secondary scoring, and it’s really tough to win in their arena.”
Trail juggled their top line in the semifinal series, throwing Braeden Tuck into the mix with Kale Howarth and Ross Armour. The move paid dividends in Game 7. Armour scored twice and set up Tuck’s power-play goal while Tuck made a perfect backhand saucer pass for Armour’s insurance marker. Howarth was outstanding throughout, leading Trail with five goals and 15 points in 11 playoff games.
Trail’s depth is as good as any team’s with Levi Glasman, Andre Ghantous, Blaine Caton, Carter Jones, Spencer McLean and Tyler Ghirardosi all making huge contributions in the post season, while, Ryan Murphy was one of Trail’s only shining lights in the Game 6 loss.
The Smokies defence often goes unheralded, but the play of Troy Ring, Seth Barton, Jeremy Lucchini, Trevor Zins, Connor Welsh, Kyle Chernenkoff, and Ethan Martini (who will return to action following his 5-game suspension) was fearless in the semifinals, blocking shots, and neutralizing the Vees big guns, particularly in the final period of the final game.
Keith says he’s taking the same blueprint to Wenatchee.
“You give them room outside the dots. If they want to shoot from there, make sure that Marcoux can see pucks, because he’s that good. If he sees those, he’ll make the stops, and get a lot of whistles off of it to kind of stop any momentum when they’re cycling pucks and creating offence in our defensive zone.”
The key to the series may indeed come down to goaltending. Marcoux has been stellar, but had three games against Penticton and one against West K that skewed his numbers, giving him a 3.51 goals-against average, and a .888 save percentage. However, his best performance came when it mattered most, in Game 7, when he stopped 37 of 39 shots for a .949 SP.
“(Adam) Marcoux has been phenomenal in both series, and I think that has to be our focus. We have to try to get as many shots as we can on net, and get traffic in front.”
The Wild’s Austin Park played in nine of 10 playoff games, going 7-2 with an .898 save percentage and a 2.55 goals-against average.
Trail’s Martini will return for Game 1, and Ghantous, who left Game 7 with injury in the first period, should be good to go on Friday. Chernenkoff has also been battling an injury and is a game-time decision.
The puck drops for the Wild-Smoke Eater game at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday in Wenatchee and returns to Trail for Game 3 on Tuesday and Game 4 Wednesday at the Cominco Arena with the puck drop scheduled for 7 p.m.
The winner of the Smokies-Wild series will face the winner of the Coastal and Mainland Conference Final between Prince George and Powell River in the Fred Page Cup for the BCHL Championship.