Winning is becoming a healthy new years habit for the Trail Smoke Eaters.
The Smoke Eaters have rolled through January with a 6-1 record, their only loss to Interior Division leading Vees in Penticton on Jan. 11.
“It’s been a good stretch,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Jeff Tambellini. “I think we’re 10-2 in the past 12 games, so it’s been a good sustained amount of time where we’ve played the top teams, and we’ve played the teams that are fighting for their lives at the bottom of the playoff race. I like how our team has adapted to a lot of different styles of play and we like where we’re at.”
Trail comfortably holds down second place in the Interior Division and embarks on the road this weekend with a pair of games against the Wenatchee Wild. The 22-19-3-1 Wild are having there worst BCHL campaign since joining the league in 2015, but are coming off a 4-3 overtime win over the Surrey Eagles on Saturday. Wenatchee has gone 3-3 this month, and are currently in fifth place in the Interior.
Trail has held the advantage in this year’s series winning 2-of-3 so far, including a 3-1 victory on home ice, Dec. 11.
“Wenatchee is a very different team this year compared to the last two. I know they lost a couple big pieces at the start of the year, probably haven’t had the same momentum they’re used to having… but our goal, and of most importance in both games, is that we start the right way. There will be a couple adjustments, but the guys are use to playing there, and they’ll be ready come game time.”
Trail is 12 points back of Penticton with three games in hand, and 11 points up on third-place Vernon with 11 games to play in the regular schedule.
“We’re chasing different things at this time,” said Tambellini. “We’re still trying to push Penticton so if they falter, we want to make sure we have enough points to push them at the end. We’re fighting for home ice against Cowichan and Nanaimo, and we’re trying to make the gap as big as possible on the group of three teams below us.”
The Smoke Eaters biggest enemy could be themselves, as they battle against complacency as much as their opponents heading down the stretch.
“We’re working a lot on our systems, the things we’re trying to put into effect in the playoffs at this time, so there are a lot of things we’re working on that are different than in October and November. It’s a time where we’re focused on building our team mentally, building our team system-wise, and then we know the execution will be there.”
Trail has quietly accumulated the best home-record in the Interior, going 16-5-0-1-1 at the Cominco Arena, and averaging more than 2,000 fans per game. The Smokies’ success at home could be the difference come playoff time.
“Home ice is always crucial. You have to win the games at home and I think we’re 15-2-0-0-1 in the last 18 home games so the building has been very good to us, and our guys are excited to play at home.
“The fans have made a big difference of attending games with an enthusiasm that gives us a real advantage whether it be a Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Wednesday night, they really give us an extra layer of support.”
Eight of their final 11 games are all against Interior rivals, including five against Wenatchee and West Kelowna in the next two weeks. Each will have playoff implications as fourth through fifth (Vernon, Salmon Arm and Wenatchee) are separated by just three points.
But when it comes to the BCHL playoffs, there isn’t much justice in the current format.
The Warriors (29-points) hold down sixth spot in the Interior, but Merritt (24-points) is not out of the picture yet, trailing the Warriors by five points with 13 games remaining.
The team with the worst record in the BCHL does not make the playoffs. In the likely event that is Merritt or West K, the bottom two teams from the Mainland and Island Division will cross over to the Interior.
Currently, the Victoria Grizzlies, 34 points, and the Prince George Spruce Kings, 37 points, hold that dubious honour. They would seed into the sixth and seventh place while West Kelowna would be in the eighth spot, and play the top seed Penticton. Trail would have to travel to Victoria for the first round to play the Cougars while the third place Vipers would play Prince George, the sixth seed, and Salmon Arm would face no. 5 Wenatchee.
Despite the seeming travesty, Tambellini is confident heading down the home stretch, and although the team didn’t make any final moves at the trade deadline, he is happy with the talented additions he made over the course of the season.
The Smoke Eaters are also catching fire when it counts, and have booked their berth into the playoffs.
“We really like our group,” added Tambellini. “We didn’t think anybody who was out there at the deadline was a real difference maker or worth the price we’d have to pay in order to get them, so I like the group we have.
“I’ve always said, ‘If you’re looking to do your big moves at the deadline, you’ve done a poor job as a manager.'”