The Trail Smoke Eaters open the 2019 BCHL Playoffs against the Merritt Centennials on Friday at the Nicola Arena in Merritt. Jim Bailey photo.

Trail Smoke Eaters ready to roll into BCHL playoffs

Smoke Eaters travel to Merritt to face the Centennials in Interior Division quarter-final match up

It’s been 17 years since Trail Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini led the Chilliwack Chiefs to the BCHL’s Fred Page Cup title as a player, and now – as a coach – he’s determined to take that experience and inspire his Smoke Eaters to make a run this year.

“You have to learn how to win, and that’s very important and definitely one of my advantages,” said Tambellini. “I’ve been through six series and won a BCHL championship and was in the RBC the long way. So understanding what it’s like to go through the first round, the second round, and how to prepare … experience in the playoffs is a big thing.”

Related read: Smoke Eaters end season on winning note

Trail takes on the Merritt Centennials in the first round of the BCHL Interior Division quarter final. Merritt finished tied for Penticton in first-place in points, but settled for second-seed as the Vees won the tie-breaker with the most wins, 37 to the Cents’ 36, on the season.

Despite being the seventh seed in the Interior, the Smoke Eaters finished the final month with impressive wins against division rivals Wenatchee, Merritt, Penticton, Salmon Arm, and West Kelowna. Tambellini likes the match up, even though the Centennials finished 22 points ahead of Trail in the standings, and won the season series 4-2.

Related read: Trail Smoke Eates battle for sixth seed

“We beat them in our building the last time we played them, and I liked the way we played there. We think it’s going to be a great series and our main goal is to find a way to split that two-game series (in Merritt) and work from there out.”

Playing in the tight confines of the Nicola Arena in Merritt is always a challenge for visiting teams, and the Cents boast one of the league’s best home records, 20-6-2-1. However, Trail managed one win there this season, and have taken steps this week to practice in a smaller facility in preparation for the cramped quarters.

“It’s a tight rink, but we think the way our team is built, especially on the back end, that will play to our advantage,” said Tambellini. “We’re going up to Rossland today to practice (at Rossland Arena), just to get into that small rink mindset, so you’re not so surprised by the environment.”

The Cents own the second most potent offence in the league, with four players in the top 20 of league scoring, including Bradley Cocca, 68 pts, Mathieu Gosselin, 60 pts, Nick Granowicz, 60 pts, and Nicholas Wicks, 59 pts.

However, Trail has the edge on defence with the experience and skill of veteran players like Trevor Zins, Powell Connor, Luke Gallagher, and Diarmad DiMurro. And despite losing veteran goalie Adam Marcoux to injury, the acquisition of netminder Donovan Buskey from the WHL Prince Albert Raiders at the trade deadline has the potential to pay huge dividends in the playoffs.

“When Adam says he’s ready, we’ll take it from there, but Donovan has played unbelievable the last little bit, so he’s going to take us into the series.”

In addition, the Centennials will be burdened with high expectations, and showing the rest of the league that they indeed are a contender after finishing in sixth-place last season. The Smoke Eaters will look to play the giant killer, as they did against the Vees last year.

“I think we’re a very different team then people think we are,” added Tambellini. “I like the spot were coming at, I don’t think a lot of teams will see us coming, we’re the underdogs – and all the expectations are on their team… Our guys are going into this playoffs with nothing to lose.”

Trail travels to Merritt for Games 1 and 2 of the Interior quarter-final with the puck drop at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Games 3 and 4 go on Tuesday and Wednesday at the Cominco Arena with game time at 7 p.m.

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