Trail Smoke Eaters in division dogfight

With the Smokies, Vipers, and SilverBacks deadlocked for 3rd place, Trail takes on Alberni Friday night and Merritt on Saturday.

Who would have thought that every BCHL Interior division game would mean so much so early in the  season?

But with the Trail Smoke Eaters, Vernon Vipers, and Salmon Arm SilverBacks deadlocked in third spot, three points behind division leading Penticton Vees and West Kelowna Warriors, and just one point up on Merritt Centennials, it gets late very early, and it’s not a stretch to say that every game is a must-win match.

This weekend the Smokies face the Alberni Valley Bulldogs Friday and follow that up Saturday with their third game against the Merritt Centennials.  The Smoke Eaters are coming off a tough 5-3 loss to the West Kelowna Warriors Saturday, after notching their first win at home in a 3-2 victory over Cowichan Valley Friday.

Trail’s Curtis Toneff has quietly emerged as a leader in the clubhouse and on the score sheet leading Smokie defenceman in scoring and third overall in team output with two goals and four assists in nine games. The Nanaimo native blasted in the winner against Cowichan Friday and counted two assists in the 5-3 loss to his former team the Warriors Saturday.

“Last year I got a bigger role playing in Manitoba so I got lots of ice, and got my confidence there and just kind of kept with it,” said Toneff.

His confidence has translated into six points in the past four games, in which the Smoke Eaters won 3-of-4. The six-foot-two-inch, 20-year-old is also a steady and responsible fixture in his own end, and believes the Smoke Eaters have the necessary tools to take it to the next level.

“We know we can beat every team,” said Toneff. “We know we have to step up against teams like Penticton, but we know we’ve played with Westside and every team other than Penticton so far, so we know we can play with everyone.”

The Island division’s Alberni Valley, at 1-7-1, is relatively unknown but seemingly beatable. Although recently, the Bulldogs have made moves to bolster it’s lineupw which has scored the second least amount of goals, 20,  and allowed the most goals in the BCHL, 42.

Recent additions Craig Martin of Trail, Harlan Orr from Salmon Arm, and Jakson Elynuik from the Camrose Kodiaks should vastly improve a team that has struggled out of the gate. The addition of Michigan goaltender Tyger Howatt has already paid dividends. The 18-year-old has registered the Bulldogs only win and tie in his two games played and sports a 2.31 GAA and a .926 save percentage, and will undoubtedly get the start Friday.

After splitting a home-and-home with Trail last month, the division-rival Centennials are not as much of a mystery as the Bulldogs. It’s top line of Scott Patterson, Jeff Wight, and Sebastien Pare combined for seven points in its 5-0 shutout of Trail on Sept. 17, but were effectively quelled the next night in Merritt where the Smokies skated to a 3-2 victory to start a three-game winning streak.

The Smoke Eaters will have to do the same this weekend in order to neutralize a solid Centennial side.

Bryan Basilico and Dylan Mascarin looked good in their first two games in the Orange and Black last weekend, and provide the Smokies with more size and speed up front.

“Mascarin and Basilico were a great addition this weekend,” said Smoke Eater assistant coach Barry Zanier. “They had a lot of jump, their work ethic is through the roof, and they’re skilled so our team is definitely better with them.”

The battle for an Interior division playoff spot is heating up already, with West Kelowna and Penticton jumping out to the early lead. How the division stacks up against other division leaders should be answered tonight when the Warriors take on the League-leading Powell River Kings at 6-1-0.

“If you look at the standings right now, how tight it is, you can drop three or four places if you get a bad weekend, so the parity is fantastic,” said Warriors’ coach and GM Rylan Ferster. “The only thing we’re talking about right now is making the playoffs. I think with so much parity and only four teams making the playoffs, there is going to be two really good teams in our division who don’t make the playoffs. To me if you finish first or fourth it doesn’t matter because you are playing someone good in the first round.”

Smoke Eater goaltender Adam Todd is sidelined with a lower-body injury, while Scott Davidson sat out with an injury last weekend and is questionable. Nathan Browne is also out with an injury.