Coming off two critical wins over the West Kelowna Warriors on the weekend, the Trail Smoke Eaters get set to take on a sizzling Wenatchee Wild team tonight at the Cominco Arena.
The Warriors could have caught the Smokies in the Interior Division standings had the tables turned, but Trail now holds an eight point advantage over fifth-place West Kelowna in the BCHL’s Interior Division, and are just two points back of the Penticton Vees, following a 7-5 victory in West K Friday and a 6-3 win at home Saturday.
“I knew they were going to come back after the break really hungry for a win,” said Smokie forward Kale Howarth, who returned to the team Friday. “And so was I, after a month off, I’m hungry for some points, hungry for some wins. It’s just good to be back with the boys, and everyone’s happier when you’re winning.”
The 25-9-2-1 Wild have won four straight including two wins over the Penticton Vees last weekend, going 7-2-0-0 in December. Meanwhile, a shorthanded Trail team struggled in December winning just three of nine games and falling from first to fourth in the Interior. Yet, with the return of Howarth, Ross Armour, and Seth Barton the Smokies came back from the holiday break with a full roster and renewed commitment.
“Through that stretch, it was actually a blessing in disguise,” said Smoke Eaters assistant coach Jessie Leung. “Because it gave us the opportunity to give players, like Carter Jones and Tyler Ghirardosi, (a chance) to really step up their game.”
The Smoke Eaters looked to be a much more confident and composed team in their 6-3 win Saturday in front of 2,500 fans – the largest crowd of the season.
The Armour and Howarth reunion with rookie Levi Glasman accounted for five points in Saturday’ match, but also gave forwards Braeden Tuck, Blaine Caton, Andre Ghantous, Ryan Murphy, and Spencer McLean more room to manoeuvre against the Warriors’ second and third lines. Tuck scored twice in Friday’s match, while McLean was a spark plug for the Smokies and game’s first star on Saturday, scoring once and setting up two goals in the 6-3 victory.
“It’s good to have all the boys back, Kale and Ross and Barts, a full lineup again, and it’s good to get back on track,” said McLean. “We were 1-and-9 in the last 10 games so it was good to get four points this weekend, and we have another big week coming up – four games again – and hopefully we can keep it going.”
The last time Trail played Wenatchee was on Dec. 6 when Trail took a 3-2 lead into the third period, but four goals in the final frame launched the Wild to a 7-4 victory, in a stretch where the Smokies played six of seven games versus Interior division teams.
“I watched the games, and could see the compete in the boys, but when you’re missing top end guys like Ross and Seth it’s definitely going to hurt your team,” said Howarth. “But I think the boys learned a lot, I learned a lot, and the boys never gave up on the season.”
The Wild’s Jasper Weatherby leads the league in scoring with 26 goals and 51 points in 37 games, supplanting Armour (17-27-44) who missed six games due to his time with Team Canada West at the World Jr. A Challenge. Armour is currently in fourth in league scoring, while Howarth, who missed nine games, is in sixth in BCHL scoring with 17 goals and 43 points. Glasman remains in the top 10 with 40 points on 17 goals and 23 assists.
Lucas Sowder (15-27-42), d-man Cooper Zech (7-32-39), and A.J. Vanderbeck (20-18-38) round out the Wild’s greatest offensive threats as Wenatchee’s potent offence now leads the BCHL in goals-for with 156, compared to 146 for the Smoke Eaters. The Wild also boasts the third best defence in terms of goals against, 94, with goaltender Austin Park earning the second most wins among BCHL goalies, 15 in just 21 games, and posting a 2.53 goals-against average.
The Smokies will be without defenceman Kyle Chernenkoff (upper body injury), but after netting 13 goals in two games, a full complement of forwards bodes well for the Smoke Eaters’ attack against the high-flying Wild.
“I missed it a lot being at home,” said Howarth. “It’s never easy being away from the boys watching them lose, I’m just happy to be back and get two Ws, and keep the ball rolling.”
Wednesday’s game is Wenatchee’s final visit to the Cominco Arena this season. Trail heads out on a three game road swing to the coast this weekend with games against the Mainland Division’s Coquitlam Express on Friday, the Langley Rivermen Saturday, and the Surrey Eagles Sunday.
Puck drop tonight against the Wild goes at 7 p.m. at the Cominco Arena.