The Trail Smoke Eaters will refocus following the Jan. 10 trade deadline, and look to continue their winning ways in the New Year when they face off against the Nanaimo Clippers tonight and the Victoria Grizzlies on Sunday.
The match up against the two Island Division teams will be the final home games of the month, as Trail embarks on two consecutive two-game series on the road against Interior Division rivals the Wenatchee Wild and the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
“The exciting thing about the two road trips coming up is that they’re going to set up exactly like a playoff series, where were going to the same city and face the same team on back-to-back nights,” said Smoke Eaters coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “It will be a great way for our group to really get the feel of the first round of the playoffs.”
The Smoke Eaters lost to the Clippers 4-3 in a shootout on Oct.7, and fell 5-2 to the Grizzlies on Nov. 2 despite holding a 45-32 edge in shots.
Nanaimo is on a roll having won nine straight games that include a 4-1 win over Wenatchee and a 5-2 victory over Langley Rivermen last weekend to improve their record to 21-18-0-0. The Clippers are led by Ethan Scardina averaging a point per game with 19 goals and 39 assists. Goalie Jordan Naylor (3.07 GAA, .906 SP) has carried much of the workload between the pipes, but it was backup Landon Pavlisin who stymied the Wild on Sunday, earning first star in a 35-save performance.
As of Thursday, the Clippers hadn’t reported any trades, and, given their recent success, are happy with their lineup.
“We’ve got great chemistry here, a great group of people, so I don’t think you want to mess with that,” Ken McPhalen, the Clippers assistant coach, told the Nanaimo Bulletin.
Sunday’s match up against Island Division leading Victoria will be a tough test for the Smokies. The Grizzlies ice the league’s leading scorer in Alex Newhook, a St. John’s, Nfld. native who has scored 21 goals and 63 points in 35 games. Newhook is projected to go in the first round by NHL Central Scouting and was ranked 10th overall by the Hockey Writer’s December draft rankings.
The Grizzlies also boast one of the best defenceman in the BCHL. Last week’s Player of the Week, Carter Berger, leads all defencemen in goals, 22, and is second in points, 43.
Victoria also received good news in the New Year as injured goalie Kurtis Chapman returned to the line up. The Airdrie native missed all of December and is one of the league’s top goalies with a 2.25 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. Chapman made 41 saves in a 3-0 shutout win over Prince George on Sunday.
“He’s one of the best goalies in the league so, while you don’t want to have to depend on him being the best player every night, it does give the guys some added confidence that he’s back there,” said Grizzlies GM and head coach Craig Didmon.
Like the Smoke Eaters, Victoria is undefeated in the New Year with three straight victories to improve its record to 25-12-0-2.
Trail, meanwhile, is also getting healthier and will endeavour to keep their two-game win streak going this weekend. The Smokies look to improve on their respectable home record of 10-7-2-1, and are coming off a big 8-4 road win over the West Kelowna Warriors and a 4-3 decision at home over Surrey Eagles thanks to big games from Kent Johnson (3G, 3A) and Trevor Zins (3G, 4A).
The road hasn’t been kind to Trail with a 6-12-3-2 record this season, but Tambellini is confident that the new year will bring better results.
“In 2019 we feel really good about the road,” he added. “We’re an older group, we’re a tougher group right now … We think our team has gotten better and we like the chemistry of our group. We wanted to do our big changes early in the year and this group has really gotten to know each other, had some time, gone through adversity and now you can see the defence is coming back healthy and we’ll be pushing the latter part of the season.”
The Smokies added defenceman Luke Gallagher from the Spokane Chiefs to the line up in a Tuesday acquisition, have Kyle Chernenkoff back from injury, and expect Mack Byers to return to the line up this weekend.
Chase Stevenson leads all Trail scorers with 16 goals and 39 points, while Hayden Rowan, Carter Jones, and Tyler Ghirardosi also had good weekends picking up four points each against the Warriors and Eagles.
Trail faces off against the Clippers at 7 p.m. tonight and the Victoria Grizzlies at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Cominco Arena.