The Trail Smoke Eaters are poised to open a home-and-home Friday night at the Cominco Arena with bitter Interior Division rival the Penticton Vees.
The Smokies have a prime opportunity to gain ground on the first place Vees, who sit 10 points up on Trail thanks to a 3-1 win over Langley on Wednesday night. The Vees have won four in a row and earned points in 10 straight games, while the Smoke Eaters are also currently riding a four game win streak, and emerged victorious in six of their last seven.
“The big part for us is that you can’t expect teams around the league to be knocking off Coquitlam, Penticton or the top teams in the league, so when you face the teams head-to-head you really have to take advantage of that,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini.
Trail won their last meeting in Penticton, a 4-1 decision on Nov. 6, however, the Vees won the previous three games including the opening two games on Cominco Arena ice to kick off the season. If the BCHL standings are any indication, their final two tilts could be a preview of things to come in the Interior Division playoffs.
“For us, it’s hopefully a team we see down the road, but to beat them and take points away from them is definitely a priority.”
Trail has one game in hand after Tuesday’s game versus Merritt was cancelled, and will miss a key piece of their offence heading into the new year.
A potentially season-ending injury to Smokies forward Tyler Ghirardosi dealt a devastating blow to both the Smoke Eaters and the Montrose native. Ghirardosi raised his game to a new level the past two months putting up 23 of his 32 points in the last 18 games before a lower body injury sidelined him on Dec. 15.
“It’s the best hockey Tyler has played since I’ve seen him as a hockey player,” said Tambellini. “I’m so proud of the progress he’s made as an athlete training all summer to prepare himself and this last month he played outstanding. He was probably one of the best players in the league in November and December.”
The 20-year-old Quinnipiac University commit is also an invaluable presence off the ice and in the community.
“You can’t replace a player like him with the character he has and the effect he has on the players in the room, but we’ll try to do that by committee and find a few pieces going down the stretch.”
To soften the blow, the Smoke Eaters added forward Matt Osadick from Merritt on Tuesday and will look to increase their depth up front before the trade deadline at 3 p.m. Friday.
Few teams in the league can match Trail’s defensive strength, with veterans Connor Powell, Kyle Budvarson, Kyle Pow, Diarmad DiMurro, Cody Schiavon and Jameson Murray anchoring the blueline.
“We are really happy with our defence,” said Tambellini. “We have seven 19- and 20-year-old veteran defencemen so that’s definitely not an area we’re looking at. We like our goaltending, and it’s probably our forward depth that we’re looking to improve.”
Trail will find out just how playoff ready they are tonight and Saturday, with just 16 games remaining in the regular season. Former Smoke Eater and Trail native Ethan Martini returned to the Vees lineup Dec. 6, after missing almost a month due to injury. The six-foot-seven defenceman will be back in Trail ready to wreak havoc in Friday’s match.
The Vees are led by NHL draft pick Jay O’Brien who is fourth in scoring in the BCHL behind the Trail trio of Kent Johnson, Owen Ozar and Michael Colello. O’Brien has been out of the Vees line up since Dec. 4, however, Lukas Sillinger, David Silye and Danny Weight have picked up the slack, while Jackson Niedermeyer netted a hat trick in an 8-4 win over Victoria Saturday and earned BCHL Player of the Week.
As of press time Thursday at noon, no new trades had been announced by the Smoke Eaters. In fact, all of the BCHL was pretty quiet this week. Coquitlam picked up goalie Joe Howe from the Victoria Grizzlies on Jan. 7 and transferred the rights of Haydn Delorme to the Prince George Spruce Kings. The BCHL leading Express also landed veteran defenceman Joey Berkopec from the Merritt Centennials on Jan. 4.
Trail added Kyle Pow and Carson Briere last month, along with Osadick, and in the event no deals are made, Tambellini says he’s confident with the line up heading down the stretch.
“We like who we have, for sure. We’ve been happy with our group pretty much the second we brought in Jameson Murray at the start of the year. It really shifted our entire group, and we liked the additions we made all season, and if we had to start the playoffs today, I’d be fine with that too.”
The Trail-Merritt game that was cancelled Tuesday will go this coming Tuesday, Jan. 14 at the Cominco Arena at 7 p.m.
The puck drop for Friday’s Trail-Penticton game goes at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.