The Trail Smoke Eaters host the Coquitlam Express Friday night at the Cominco Arena and travel to Vernon on Saturday for a tilt against the Vipers in the Snake Pit.
The Smoke Eaters are coming off massive wins over Interior Division rivals the Penticton Vees and Merritt Centennials last week, and look to keep their three game win streak intact tonight against the unpredictable 10-39-1-2 Express.
“Unfortunately, right now even with a couple wins this week it doesn’t really give us much of a cushion, we have to keep getting points especially at home,”said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “There is no game that you don’t say is a must-win right now because there are so many teams that are so tight and home-ice advantage is going to be so huge in that first round.”
With 10 games to play in the regular season, the 23-21-4-0 Smoke Eaters sit in third place in the Interior, two points up on the West Kelowna Warriors and four points ahead of Merritt. The Smoke Eaters beat the Express in their last meeting 6-3 in Coquitlam on Jan. 21, and have eight of its last 10 matches versus Interior-Division opponents including three crucial games against Vernon.
The Express have one win in its past seven games, and are led by 20-year-old forward Luca Leone, who played two seasons with the WHL Vancouver Giants.
The 26-15-5-4 Vipers are 11 points up on Trail in second place in the Interior, and with two games in hand, the Smoke Eaters are mathematically capable of catching the Vipers but it would take a heroic run by Trail and a less than mediocre finish from the Vipers for Trail to grab one of the two first round playoff byes.
“You just take it one game at a time, so to speak, and just stay the course and hopefully we can pick up points against Coquitlam and Vernon further down the road.”
Vernon beat Trail in its last two contests in December, and are coming off a 4-3 overtime loss to West Kelowna on Wednesday, but have points in five straight (3-0-1-1) games. The Vipers took seven of a possible eight points last week against Penticton (2), Nanaimo and Prince George. Vipers’ goalie Darion Hanson was awarded the BCHL Player of the Week for stopping 112 of 116 shots in three weekend wins, while forward Steven Jandric was an honorable mention.
Since joining the Vipers in late November, Hanson posted a .941 save percentage and a 1.93 goals-against average, the best numbers for goalies with at least 800 minutes played. The native of East Bethe, Minn. carries a record of 11-3-2 with two shutouts.
Smoke Signals: The Smoke Eaters will be without Ross Armour and Ryan Murphy for the remainder of the regular season due to injury, and Mitch Stapley and Tyson Slater are questionable. Smokies captain Connor Brown-Maloski will rejoin the lineup after sitting out a three-game suspension.
Despite the injuries, the Smoke Eaters beat the Cents 5-3 and the Vees 6-3 last week and were impressed with the play of affiliate players from the Beaver Valley Nitehawks – Tyler Ghirardosi, Bradley Ross, and Karsten Jang – and the Creston Thunder Cats’ Justen James, who will likely again see action this weekend.
The Smokies hit the ice against the Express at 7:30 p.m. Friday night at the Cominco Arena.