The Trail Smoke Eaters wrap up one of their best seasons in franchise history this weekend when they take on the Salmon Arm Silverbacks and Merritt Centennials.
Only the 1996-97 Trail team had more wins, 39, in 60 games, than the 2020 Smoke Eaters who have managed 35 victories, and have the fewest regulation losses, 16, in franchise history, with two games remaining. Currently, Trail has amassed 75 points in 56 games and can match their record point total, 79, with two victories this weekend.
“When you win a lot of games seasons go by fast,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “Anytime you’re going after franchise records in points and winning percentage, it’s exciting, the players are excited, but I think the guys are even more excited about the playoffs being a week away.”
The Smoke Eaters first round playoff matchup vs Prince George has been decided but it doesn’t mean the team will rest on its laurels against Salmon Arm at home on Friday. The Smokies can still catch and surpass Cowichan Valley Capitals in the overall league standings, which may pay dividends down the road. The 35-14-5-2 Caps have a two-point advantage over the Smokies heading into the final two games.
“We’re still looking to jump the Island teams,” said Tambellini. “We’re trying to hold back Nanaimo and get ahead of Cowichan just to get us as high a leap (in the standings) as possible for the league finals, so, if it’s not Coquitlam, we want home ice the whole way.”
With three games remaining, Salmon Arm isn’t about to mail it in either, as the Gorillas, currently in fifth spot, can finish as high as third and, with a little luck, overtake the Vernon Vipers and Wenatchee Wild.
The Silverbacks had won six in a row until losses to Merritt, 4-2, and Wenatchee, 4-1, halted their momentum last weekend. Meanwhile, the Smoke Eaters are coming off a 5-2 victory over West Kelowna on Monday, following a tough loss to the league-leading Coquitlam Express on Saturday. Despite the 5-2 setback, Trail acquitted themselves well against the Express, and outshot them 34-32 in the wide open match up.
“I liked our game against Coquitlam. We played a good first 30 minutes. We probably had better scoring chances than them in the first half of the game. We missed on probably three Grade-A chances, where if you don’t hit on those, you give a team a chance and sooner or later they’re going to get something.
“Overall it wasn’t a game that was going to win or lose us anything, but it was a good look at the top team in the league, points-wise right now, and we know where we stand against them, and that every team in this league is beatable.”
Trail last faced the ‘Backs on Dec. 15 in a 7-4 loss in Salmon Arm, and have a 1-3-1-1 record against them this season. Trail, however, has been good in the new year, going 12-3-0-1 since Jan. 1.
Trail is also relatively healthy heading towards the playoffs, although they will continue to miss Montrose native Tyler Ghirardosi whose season came to an end back in December with a lower body injury.
On Saturday, the Smoke Eaters end their regular season in Merritt versus the Centennials. Trail is 5-0 against the Cents this year, and will look to finish the sweep and head into the playoffs with momentum.
“What I love about our team is that we have a group that find ways to win games whether we’re ahead, behind, tied – they’ve dealt with adversity. I’d be more worried if we were a team that never faced adversity at any time throughout the year … It’s a desperate group when it needs to be, and it’s a mature group. We’re excited about what we have, and we’re excited for the real season to start.”
Trail and Salmon Arm will face off at the Cominco Arena at 7 p.m. on Friday night, with a Smoke Eaters award ceremony and meet-and-greet with fans following the game.
Smoke Eaters notes: The Smokies have an unprecedented four players in the top-15 in BCHL scoring: Johnson 41-60-101 points, Colella 26-39-65, Ozar 24-39-63, and Philippe Lapointe 20-34-54 (in just 34 games).
Trail’s 17-year-old puckstopper, Logan Terness, has also had a banner season and will look to tie the most wins record, 27, for a Smoke Eaters goalie against Salmon Arm, Friday.