The Trail Smoke Eaters will look forward to the Christmas break, not because they’ve been playing particularly poor, but more importantly to give the injury-riddled team time to heal.
Bryce Knapp returned to the line up against West Kelowna Friday as the Smokies skated to its fourth win in a row, a 4-3 victory, thanks to an overtime goal from Connor Collett.
However, the team couldn’t find enough offence to complete the comeback against Vernon Saturday dropping a 4-3 decision, before bowing to Nanaimo 4-1 Sunday.
“I think those last two games agains Vernon and Nanaimo were winnable games, but we didn’t show up until it was too late,” said Trail head coach and GM Bill Birks. “Points are huge right now and everyone behind us with games in hand, losing those ones was a tough pill to swallow.”
Beaver Valley Nitehawks forward Kurt Black dressed as an AP for Vernon and got into the mix with an assist on Adam Tambellini’s second of the night that gave the Vipers a 4-0 lead in the second period. Tyler Berkholtz, Mitch Foyle and Luke Sandler scored for the Smokies, who outshot the Vipers 35-21.
The Smokies have shown a lot of character in fighting through the injuries and illnesses, but the bug is beginning to take its toll.
“It’s been pretty hectic,” said Smoke Eater trainer Brock Ward. “It’s kind of new to me because it’s my first year, but it’s definitely an eye opener on the other side of the boards, seeing how frequently guys get injured.”
The Smokies suffered another body blow in their loss against the Clippers when forward Scott Davidson went down with a lower body injury in the first period and never returned. Davidson joins line mate and Smokies leading scorer Brent Baltus, forward Jesse Knowler, defensemen Shane Poulsen and Braedon Jones, as well as goalie Adam Todd on the DL.
“We’ve played a lot of hockey in the last month,” said Birks. “We’re hurt and sick . . . when you lose Baltus, Poulsen, Knowler, Jones, and Davidson, guys playing injured, it’s a big part of your team.”
Ward, a former player, understands the competitive nature of the game and that guys are eager to get back in the action. The most important aspect of his job is getting the players into see the doctor and expedite a physiotherapy program to facilitate recovery.
“A lot of guys have big hearts, and are fighting back from their injuries pretty well,” said Ward, adding the Christmas vacation could be the best medicine to those injured and ailing. “It will be a big help, two weeks, get the guys off the ice, let their injuries heal up, and a lot of guys that are sick, get the illness out of us too.”
Baltus said he was still sore and would likely sit out the Smokies final game of 2012 against the Merritt Centennials tonight.
“The break will do us all good, just to get healthy again,” said Baltus.
Trail also employed the services of Castlegar Rebels goalie Jordan Gluck and forward Jamie Vlanich on Sunday. Gluck was solid in net for the Smokies and Stefan Wood was also impressive on defence. The Kamloops Storm AP logged ample ice time and proved a mobile and physical stay-at-home defenceman, while Riley Brandt of the Nitehawks AP’d for Saturday’s game.
“Every time we’ve had an AP in the line up they’ve been good, real steady,” said Birks.
The Smokies face a Merritt team that is coming off three straight wins, and is currently second in the Interior division with a 17-10-1-1 record and 36 points.
The Cents are led by Regan Soquila who has counted nine goals and 21 assists this season, with a blue line anchored by Dane Birks, son of Smokies coach Bill Birks.
Dane was recently ranked in NHL Central Scoutings list of junior hockey draft eligible players and has been a thorn in the side of the Smokies this season. With so many Smokie injuries, the task won’t getting any easier tonight.
“We’ve got to win but we have to be healthy to win, so it’s kind of a catch-22,” said Birks.
The teams face off tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.