The Trail Smoke Eaters have a daunting task ahead of them.
The team is preparing to play the BCHL regular season champion Penticton Vees in Round 1 of the BCHL Interior Conference playoff, without some of their best players.
For head coach and GM Tim Fragle, it’s the second season in a row that, following a good first half of the season, the Smoke Eaters faltered after being riddled with injuries to key players.
“From the middle of January on it was extremely challenging for us,” said Fragle. “We calculated just under 170 man-games lost due to injury, and we had close to 60 games played by our affiliate players, which is unbelievable. So, obviously that affected our results based on not being able to dress a BCHL line up every night, unfortunately.”
As Trail readies for the Vees, Fragle is doubtful they will have any of their five injured players back, which include forwards Trey Fechko, Ridge Dawson, Anthony Domina, and Connor Seeley and defenceman Ethan Warrener.
Yet, the Smoke Eaters had a promising end to its season, earning seven of 12 points in the final three weeks with wins over the Surrey Eagles, Coquitlam Express, and Wenatchee Wild.
“It (the number of injured players) never seemed to improve and that was the issue for us,” said Fragle. “We do feel a little bit better with our last six games in March. Being able to win three and lose one in a shootout, with as healthy a line up we are going to have to start the playoffs.
“That gives us some optimism, that at least we are trending in the right direction.”
Penticton will look to become the first team since 2011 to win back-to-back BCHL titles. The Vees finished the season with 101 points and a 50-3-0-1 record, going undefeated on home ice. They won 15 games in a row to end the season, and became just the eighth team in BCHL history to record 50 victories in a single season.
Trail ended the season with 47 points and a 20-27-3-4 record and will have to play smart and disciplined hockey to contend with the defending champion.
The Vees power play is off the charts, converting on 39.1 per cent (88 goals) of its 225 opportunities. The Smoke Eaters have a respectable 20.4 per cent rate, and are 77.5 per cent on the penalty kill.
“Their power play is lethal and they took advantage of every team this year on the power play, so we need to be disciplined and when we do take one we have to do what it takes on the penalty kill to get the job done.”
The Smoke Eaters handed the Vees their only playoff loss last season, a 5-3 setback in Game 1, before losing back-to-back 2-1 matches at home.
Smoke Eaters fans will also remember the upset win over the perennial conference leader in 2018, when Trail eliminated the no 1 seeded Vees with a 4-2 Game 7 victory in Penticton.
The Smoke Eaters will rely on strong goaltending and focus on team defence to slow down the Vees and their top two snipers in Josh and Bradly Nadeau, who lead all BCHL scorers for 2022-2023, posting 113 and 108 points, respectively.
“Goaltending is key,” said Fragle. “I mean the one game where we lost 2-1 in a shootout to them, we had a really good performance from Teagan Kendrick to give us a chance. We look at save percentage as a measuring stick so if we have a consistent save percentage on a nightly basis that will give us a chance.”
Kendrick, 19, was the diffence in several Smoke Eaters wins going 14-14-1-0, with a 3.32 goals against average and a .907 save percentage.
Offensively, the Smoke Eaters will have to exploit their quickness up front and outwork a Vees team that will have a well-deserved chip on its shoulder. But trying to shut down the Vees potent offence will be the Smoke Eaters main challenge.
“We didn’t produce enough offence in the back half of the season,” said Fragle. “At the end of the day you have to play good team defence too, and I thought we were very inconsistent. One night our attention to detail defensively is sharp and the next night it’s loose.
“So if I look at those two areas, where we didn’t get enough scoring and we were inconsistent defensively, that is a recipe to end up exactly where we did.”
But, Fragle notes, anything can happen in a best-of-seven series.
“We felt last year in the playoffs we probably gave them their toughest series, and that’s going to be our goal again. Give them the toughest series they have and try to just chip away game by game.”
Trail will travel to Penticton for Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-seven series Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1.
Games 3 and 4 will go at the Trail Memorial Centre on Tuesday, April 4 and Wednesday, April 5 with the puck drop at 7 p.m.