The Trail Smoke Eaters final game of the regular season goes on Saturday at the Cominco Arena, and the Smokies have clinched a playoff spot, but where they’ll finish and who they’ll play is still up in the air.
The Smoke Eaters sit one point back of the 27-28-0-1 West Kelowna Warriors and, with two games remaining against the same Warriors, can make a move into sixth place. If that should happen, Trail would play the Wenatchee Wild who are firmly entrenched in third place.
“Either one is difficult travel, but I like our team against both (Merritt or Wenatchee),” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “Any team you face in our division whether it’s Penticton, Salmon Arm, Vernon, you go through the whole list, it’s going to be a difficult series. We’re worried about our process, and how we we’re going, and no matter the opponent, we’ll be ready.”
In the event the Smokies stay in seventh, they’ll play the second seed, which will either be the Merritt Centennials or the Penticton Vees. The two teams are currently deadlocked in first place with 75 points, following a Vees loss to the Wild on Wednesday.
It looked like Trail would face either Merritt or Wenatchee, but the Vees have struggled mightily this month, winning just three-of-eight games while pursuing coach Fred Harbinson’s 500th win.
In a somewhat confounding playoff format, only the team with the worst record (Surrey Eagles) does not make playoffs. In the Interior Division, all seven teams are playoff-bound, and joining them in Round 1 will be the Cowichan Valley Capitals, a crossover team from from the Island Division.
The Capitals will be the number-8 seed in the Interior Division by virtue of owning the second worst record in the BCHL, and will play the first seed in the Interior, either the Vees or the Cents, with every series a best-of-seven.
“I enjoy the seven-game series,” said Tambellini. “I think it’s good for young players to get use to that battle and how hard it is to win. Usually, the best teams win a seven-game series … One of the tough spots with our division, is that the best team is going to win the division is going to have the worst travel going to the Island Division. The fact that they’re going to have to mix in that kind of travel in the first round, and the wear-and-tear if it turns into something that goes past four games, it’ll definitely affect that group. “
Trail can avoid both Merritt and Penticton by winning its final two games against the Warriors in a home-and-home this weekend. West Kelowna has had their troubles in the final month, dropping seven of eight matches, while Trail has gone a respectable 6-4 in their last 10. Even though a playoff spot is clinched, losses to a floundering Warriors team would be deflating, so the last two games are crucial to a Smoke Eaters team looking to make a run.
“Again it’s momentum we’re looking to build, so a chance to play a big series against a team we played really good back-to-back series with the entire year,” said Tambellini. “We just want this weekend to mean a lot in the standings so we can prepare for this like we’re going to prepare the following week (for playoffs), it’s a big weekend and games matter.”
In the Mainland Division, the top-four teams have booked spots in the postseason, although the exact seeding remains to be determined. The Chilliwack Chiefs clinched the Mainland division and league titles, with the Prince George Spruce Kings securing the second seed, and Coquitlam and Langley battling for third and fourth seeding.
The top seed in the Island Division has yet to be settled with Powell River having a mathematical chance to catch Victoria, trailing by four points with three games to play. When the playoffs begin, it will be the No. 1 seed against the No. 4 seed and No. 2 against No. 3 in Round 1.
In Round 3, the winner of the Island Division will play the winner of the Mainland to determine who goes to the Fred Page Cup BCHL Finals, while the eight Interior teams will play within their division until a winner emerges after Round 3. That team will then go to the Finals.
The 2019 BCHL Playoffs starts on Mar. 1.
The Smoke Eaters are looking to pack the house and encourage Smokies season-ticket holders to share any extra tickets.
Trail hosts West Kelowna on Saturday with the puck drop at 7 p.m.