It’s been 13 years since the Trail Smoke Eaters faced off against the Penticton Vees in a BCHL playoff game, but that doesn’t mean the intense rivalry between the two teams has waned.
“They (Penticton) are a really fast skating team, they’re really well coached, and they have had great success in the past, and great success this year, so we’ll just have dial it in that much more,” said Smoke Eater assistant captain Kale Howarth. “It’s not going to be an easy series but with the group of guys we have here, I know we can come out and give them a really good fight.”
In March 2005, Trail lost in six games to the Penticton Vees in the Interior Division quarter-final. After falling behind three games to none, the Smokies won back-to-back games in OT before losing 3-2 in Game 6.
Trail looks to turn the table this time around as the Smokies and Vees resume their heated history on Friday in Penticton when they battle in Game 1 of the Interior best-of-seven semifinal.
Trail went 1-3-1-1 against the Vees this season with their lone victory a 4-1 win in their first game, Oct. 28. A close 2-1 setback in Trail followed a month later, and the next two games went to overtime with the teams skating to a 2-2 tie on Jan. 12, and Trail suffering an OT loss eight days later. The final two games ended in 4-1 and 3-0 victories for the Vees in February, with empty net goals icing the two matches.
“It’s Penticton, so it’s not an easy matchup,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “You have to respect their talent level. They’re the same Penticton team as they always are, so high-end forwards, a really balanced team, and they play really structured systems. We’ll have to try to do what we do best, and try to grind them down a bit, slow things down, and play really disciplined hockey.”
Every game has been high octane, fast-paced matchups, with explosive offensive rushes, stellar goaltending, and hard hitting. The Vees boast a potent lineup with Owen Sillinger leading Vees skaters with 67 points this season, and Taylor Ward (21-23-44) providing the most offence in the first round with four goals and three assists in the four-game sweep of the Coquitlam Express. Five players – Ward, Massimo Rizzo, Chris Klack, Wyatt Sloboshan and Johnny Tychonick – recorded five points or more.
Despite the top-seed’s offensive prowess, Trail matches up well against the Vees with the top-scoring line of Howarth, Ross Armour and Levi Glasman leading the way. Howarth netted three goals and eight points in the first round, while Armour and Glasman each had seven points. The trio was one of the top scoring lines in the BCHL during the regular season and the Smokies had the second best offence with 218 goals scored, trailing only Wenatchee with 241.
Howarth was selected in the fifth-round of the NHL draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets last June, and – just as in the regular season – the Red Deer native expects his line to get a lot of attention from the Vees checking line.
“You just have to play simple, and skate that much harder, just out-compete them, but it’s all about staying composed,” said Howarth. “They’re going to try and stick you, hook you, you just can’t let it get you frustrated, you have to keep working through it. I’m pretty confident with the skill level our line has that we can find open space and we’re pretty opportunistic so hopefully we can put a few in the back of the net.”
Penticton coach Fred Harbinson recognizes the Smokies top line as a major contributor, but he also knows that guys like Andre Ghantous, Blaine Caton, Braeden Tuck, Tyler Ghirardosi, Spencer McLean, Ryan Murphy and Carter Jones do much of the heavy lifting.
“They are a very offensively gifted team and more than just their top line,” said Harbinson. “Everyone wants to focus on Howarth and Armour but they have a multitude of guys that can score and make plays. It should be a great test for us.”
For Howarth, the key to a series win lies in the Smoke Eaters depth.
“Our depth chart is unbelievable, from first to fourth everyone can score goals, and everyone can chip in by throwing their body around, everyone is a good skater on our team. It’s a great system that we got going on here, and I’m really confident in the group that we have going forward.”
The Vees always get stronger at the trade deadline, and this season was no exception. Penticton traded for 19-year-old forward Marcus Mitchell from the Salmon Arm Silverbacks, and acquired 20-year-old forward and veteran of 219 WHL games, Wyatt Sloboshan from the Regina Pats. The Vees also had the good luck of having defenceman James Miller leave the University of New Hampshire to join the team on Jan. 8. In addition to the return of 20-year-old forward Chris Klack from injury, the Vees were all but unbeatable in the second half of the season, going 19-3-1-0 through January and February.
“They made a really good pick up with Sloboshan,” said Keith. “They made some good pick ups with Mitchell, they got a kid back from college hockey, so they are playing really good hockey right now. It’s going to be a matter of us matching how well they progressed.”
Special teams will play a big part in the series. Penticton’s power play was third in the league at 22 per cent, but exploded for seven goals on 19 chances in four games against Coquitlam in the first round. The Vees had the top penalty kill at 86.1 per cent, and are even better on the road at 89.1 per cent.
Playing disciplined hockey will again be key for Trail as the Smokies finished 13th overall (79.1 per cent) on the PK this season and were 12-for-18 in the West Kelowna series.
Good goaltending is vital in any series and the Smokies netminder Adam Marcoux has proven he is more than willing and capable to shoulder that responsibility. Vees starter Adam Scheel faced an average of 27 shots per game and posted impressive numbers with a 2.08 goals against, a .927 save percentage, while Marcoux averaged over 34 shots per game, and rang up a 2.78 goals against and a .917 save percentage since joining Trail in December.
With 10-days between series, both teams have had ample time to rest and recuperate from injury, and prepare on and off the ice.
“It is going to be two great teams that want to try and get to the Interior final and only one is going to be able to do it,” said Harbinson. “It’s going to come down to who is going to do all the little small things that leads to the big ones and just execution.”
But as the fourth seed, Trail will have to do a little extra in order to knock off the BCHL regular-season champion.
“It’s a best-of-seven, and we understand we have to go into Penticton and win one – we have to get one in their arena and hopefully that will be the series,” said Keith. “We have a pretty good team here, so as coaches, we’re excited about the prospect of what we can do in the series.”
The Vernon Vipers play the Wenatchee Wild in the other Interior series, while the Prince George Spruce Kings host the Surrey Eagles in the Mainland Division tilt, and the Victoria Grizzlies play the Powell River Kings on the Island.
Games 1 and 2 between Trail and Penticton go Friday and Saturday in Penticton at the South Okanagan Events Centre with the puck drop at 7 and 6 p.m.
Smoke Signals: Smoke Eaters staff are also encouraging students and employees/employers to wear orange to school and work on Friday to lend their support and send good vibes to the Trail team as they continue their quest for a Fred Page Cup.