The Trail Smoke Eaters will wind up its finest regular season performance since 2010-11 this weekend when they take on the Vernon Vipers on Friday at the Cominco Arena.
The Smokies home-and-home series with Vernon will also decide third place in the Interior Division after the West Kelowna Warriors fell to Penticton 5-1 on Tuesday. With two games remaining, Trail and West Kelowna are tied with 56 points, but Trail needs to win the race by points, as the Warriors will take the tie-breaker having more victories than Trail. The Warriors play their final two final games against the Merritt Centennials and Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
“We still have a chance to get third place, and don’t know when or if that’s going to matter but you still have to try to get the highest seed that you can and it’s a pride thing as well,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith.
Vernon will enjoy a bye in the first round of the playoffs, with second place locked up in the Interior. The Vipers hold a 4-1 advantage in the season series versus Trail, although three of the five games were decided by a single goal.
“We want to finish above .500 and we need to prove we can beat Vernon,” said Keith. “Vernon has had our number all year and this is a big opportunity for us to show that if they meet us in the playoffs, they’re not going to run us over, we have to show we have a little push back, especially at home.”
Trail native and Vernon captain Riley Brandt endured a difficult season missing 10 games due to a suspension on Oct. 29, then was sidelined with injury for all of January. He rejoined the team on Feb. 10 and is getting back his stride at a propitious time for the Vipers, scoring twice and earning first-star honours in a 4-1 victory over Alberni on Saturday. The former Beaver Valley Nitehawks forward had his best outing of the season against Trail, netting three points in a 6-2 victory on Dec. 10.
Friday’s outcomes will determine how the Smokies approach Saturday’s match, and whether resting key players is an option. An injured Kale Howarth will be a game-time decision Friday, and Mitch Stapley and Ross Armour should be ready to go next Friday for Game 1 of the Interior Division playoff.
As for the playoff race, the Smoke Eaters will face either the Cents or Silverbacks in a best-of-seven playoff. The Smokies went 4-2-1 against the ‘Backs, while winning just two-of-seven against the Centennials. However, with home ice and a healthier lineup than the Smokies have had in a month, Keith is optimistic for first-round success.
“We have a lot of potential to go deep in the playoffs. You have to focus on the first round and first game and it’s going to be a good experience for these guys. They’re all playoff rookies, and so probably the only thing working against us is we don’t have a lot of playoff experience, but we’ll have a very excited crowd that hasn’t seen playoffs for a while. So hopefully the boys can feed off that energy, and it truly gives us that home-ice advantage for the first round.”
The puck drop against the Vipers goes at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Cominco Arena.