The Trail Smoke Eaters will try to shake off the mid-season blahs this week, but won’t have an easy task when they take on the league-leading Penticton Vees tonight in Penticton.
“Historically we play well against the better teams in the league,” said Smoke Eater coach and GM Cam Keith. “I think we hit a wall in the last four or five games where we haven’t played up to our expectations, so we are trying to refocus for these next two games to finish on a high note before the Christmas break.”
The Smokies hit a season high two weeks ago when they defeated the Vees 5-3 at home, but have managed just one win in five games since then to fall from second into third place in the Interior Division.
“I feel it’s that time of year, where it’s the dog days, so to speak and we’ve gone into a little bit of a funk, partially with some injuries, and with Kale (Howarth) and Ross (Armour) going to the Team Canada West, it mixes up the team chemistry. But we have to dig ourselves out sooner than later, because our division is so tight right now we can’t fall back too far.”
The Vees are coming off a 5-1 victory over the Cowichan Valley Capitals on Saturday and have won three in a row since losing to Trail then Salmon Arm in back-to-back losses. Trail will likely see a better team than the one they faced on Nov. 30 when a couple of weak goals chased starter Nolan Hildebrand early in the second period in favour of the league’s leading goalie Mathew Robson. However, the University of Minnesota commit uncharacteristically allowed three Smoke Eater goals including two from Luke Santerno and a change-up winner by Spencer McLean.
The Vees will also be without defenceman Jonny Tychonick who is playing with Team Canada West, but have more than enough talent and size to make up for the Notre Dame commits absence. The Vees boast a big blueline featuring six-foot-four twin towers in Griffin Mendel and Joseph Leahy, in addition to a fast forward corps led by Nic Jones 11-24-35, Grant Cruikshank 21-9-30, and Ty Amonte 11-17-28.
“Any time you go into Penticton, whether you’ve had success against them or not it’s going to be a very tough challenge,” says Keith. “Our goal against them is always the same – keep the game close, keep them to the outside, and limit their chances and just try to play a smart hockey game.”
Trail will be without forward Ross Armour, who the team decided to rest last weekend following his return from the Canada West selection camp.
“He’s been playing at about 75 per cent for the last month so we finally made the decision to rest him,” said Keith. “He’s too important to our team to keep him playing and prolonging the recovery period, so for longevity it’s best we rest him right now and he’s 100 per cent after Christmas.”
The Interior Division can’t get any tighter with six points separating second and sixth place, so the upcoming games against Interior Division leader Penticton and the second place Vernon Vipers on Saturday at home are as crucial as they come at this time of year.
“There’s zero (room for error). You have one bad week, which we did, and we’re back in the thick of it, but that’s fine, it’s a very long season … every team is going to have highs and lows you just have to make sure your team keeps progressing.”