The Trail Smoke Eaters will look to end their longest losing streak in the past 22 games when they face a pair of Mainland Division teams at home this weekend.
A punishing road trip took its toll last weekend. After a win over Powell River, Trail fell to the Island Division leading Nanaimo Clippers, 4-1, Saturday and Alberni Valley Bulldogs, 5-2, on Sunday.
“We really liked the way we played the first night, but we didn’t make the most of our scoring opportunities the second night in Nanaimo, just a shift in momentum a little bit,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “Then on Sunday, we were short-staffed, I think we were down to eight forwards and three-and-a-half ‘D’ by the end, and we still had a chance to win.”
The Smokies will try to remedy the two-game losing skid this weekend, when they face the Langley Rivermen on Friday followed by a match against the Chilliwack Chiefs Saturday.
“Not the weekend we were hoping for over three games, but my main concern is getting all those guys back healthy and in the line up and full staff for this weekend,” said Tambellini.
Trail approaches the half-way point in the season sporting a very respectable 17-8-2-1 record compared to going 11-12-4-2 during the opening three months last season. While the Smoke Eaters are much improved, Trail’s head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini is not about to compare last year’s rebuild to this year’s highly-touted roster.
“It’s a very, very different group than last year,” said Tambellini. “Last year we were coming off a long playoff run and really a full rebuild with our team so it’s really difficult to compare the two groups. This is a group with high expectations, last year was a team just trying to get a spot in the playoffs where we could win one or two rounds, so very different years.”
Until the past weekend, the Smoke Eaters were riding a 17-1-1-1 record in their last 20 games, however, a spate of injuries certainly hampered the coaching staff’s day-to-day game plan on the weekend.
“We’re okay with where we’re at,” said Tambellini. “Our biggest thing right now is trying to get our group healthy. We iced a full team for two games and in those two games (vs Penticton and Vernon), we had two of the most dominant performances we’ve had. Our biggest challenge this year has been health, and we’ve dealt with more high-end injuries than most teams in the league. I think the maintenance of our guys and getting our group back healthy is the priority for us.”
Langley, 11-14-0-1, is led by hometown forward Brendan Budy, who has 12 goals and 36 points on the year, and is currently fourth in league scoring behind Trail’s Kent Johnson and Michael Colella, and Penticton’s Jay O’Brien.
The Rivermen have just three wins in seven games in November, however, four of the last five games have gone to either overtime or a shootout. Langley is coming off a 4-3 loss to Interior Division leading Penticton on Tuesday and a 4-3 overtime loss to the 17-9-1-1 Cowichan Valley Capitals on Sunday.
“These are two very strong teams and two teams we don’t see a lot of so a lot of unknowns in the way the game is going to be played, but we’re expecting a very heavy night the first night against Langley. They have some high-end players in Brendan Budy, and a couple big defencemen so we’ll definitely have our hands full there.”
Chilliwack, like Trail, has five players going to the Team Canada West selection camp for the World Jr. A Challenge and are second in the Mainland Division with a 12-8-4-1 record. The talent-laden Chiefs have been inconsistent of late with just two wins in their last seven games.
“Chilliwack has a very young, dynamic roster. I believe they have five guys going to the World Jr. A camp so there’s a lot of young skill on there and we’re going to have to be prepared to defend and push back against their talent level.”
Chiefs defencemen Jack Agnew and Xavier Henry, along with forwards Ethan Bowen, Kyle Penney and Peter Reynolds were invited to attend the selection camp, and will join Smoke Eaters invitees in forwards Kent Johnson, Owen Ozar, and Philippe Lapointe, defenceman Powell Connor and goalie Logan Terness in Calgary, Dec. 1-3.
The number of Smoke Eaters invited to the camp is unprecedented, and a bold reflection of the skilled group assembled by Tambellini and the rest of the coaching and recruiting staff.
“We’re so proud of those five guys, I mean there’s a lot of guys that have had great starts, but those five have really established themselves as dominant players in our league. To be able to send five guys to a national camp and hopefully to the team, again it’s the reflection of the type of people that we’re getting to come to Trail to be a part of our team.
“We’re thrilled for them, we hope they all make that team and come back with a little bit of hardware and it will be a great experience for them wearing the Canadian jersey.”
The World Jr. A Challenge runs from Dec. 7-15 in Dawson Creek. Before that, the Smokies will look to get healthy and back on track this weekend.
“There’s probably five, six, seven guys with issues going on, but if you don’t have issues at this time of year, you are probably not playing hard enough,” added Tambellini.
Trail faces off against the Rivermen at 7 p.m. on Friday at the Cominco Arena and the same time, same place versus the Chiefs on Saturday.