The Trail Smoke Eaters return to divisional play with their first match up of the season against Trail native Riley Brandt and the Vernon Vipers.
The 7-5-2-0 Vipers are coming off a 3-2 overtime win over the Chilliwack Chiefs on Wednesday and currently sit in third place in the Interior Division, three points ahead of the 6-7-1-0 Smokies.
“This is our rival game against Vernon, and as the standings are now everyone is in reach of each other,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “It’s a playoff atmosphere home-and-home against a team we haven’t seen yet.”
The Vipers are led by prolific playmaker Jimmy Lambert with two goals and 10 assists, and Steven Jandric 6-5-11, but it is the Vipers’ captain Brandt who is their leader on and off the ice. The 19-year-old forward has amassed three goals and eight points with 22 penalty minutes in 14 games. Combining intense physical play, despite his five-foot-eight frame, with a high hockey IQ, soft hands, and a heavy shot has made Brandt a feared and respected opponent.
The Vipers special teams are especially lethal. Vernon has the second best power play in the league scoring on 30.6 per cent of its opportunities or 19 for 62, and a second best penalty kill at 83.6 per cent. Trail’s power play is fifth best in the league with a respectable 25.9 per cent success rate, but its penalty kill is 12th best at 75.5 per cent.
Friday’s game in Vernon is the first meeting between the two teams since Trail lost the final game of last season, 7-2, to the Vipers, which eliminated the Smokies from a playoff spot.
Trail has had a week to prepare and are coming off an incredible run where they went 4-1 in five games played over eight days, including a 4-3 loss to the Nanaimo Clippers a week ago today. Trail was without Kale Howarth and Blaine Caton due to illness, and with players banged up, the seven-day layoff gives the Smokies time to recuperate.
“Because of the combination of injuries and sickness this is good timing in the schedule for us,” said Keith. “But we have to regroup and make sure that we’re moving in the right direction.”
The Smoke Eaters Luke Santerno has been especially hot, scoring five goals and eight points in the past four games to put him among the top-five scorers in the BCHL with 9-11-20, while Ross Armour is not far behind with two goals and seven points in the same four games and 5-12-17 on the season.
The Smoke Eaters are determined to get back on track and continue their winning ways after a week of hard work on the ice, and games against division rivals are crucial if the Smokies hope to be in the top four in the Interior Division come March.
“Practices are always an opportunity to iron out weaknesses in our game and get better,” said Keith. “These (games) are the times you can put a little distance between teams in your division, they’re all four-point games.”
Trail plays in Vernon on Friday and return to the Cominco Arena on Saturday with the puck drop at 7 p.m.