By Jim Bailey, Trail Times
Following a 13-day Christmas break, a hopeful, refreshed, and refocused Trail Smoke Eaters team takes to the ice tonight at Royal LePage Place in West Kelowna for a home-and-home against the Warriors.
After injuries and absences plagued the Smokies for most of December, Trail will return to the ice with just one regular, defenceman Kyle Chernenkoff, out of the lineup.
“December was a tough go for us obviously,” said Smoke Eater assistant coach Jessie Leung. “Not to make injuries and players out of the lineup an excuse, but we were running pretty barren as far as our lineup for the start of December.”
The return of defenceman Seth Barton and forward Ross Armour will be an especially welcome shot in the arm, not to mention Kale Howarth’s powerful presence. The Smokies struggled on offence since Howarth returned to his home in Red Deer to concentrate on studies at the end of November, and Armour and Barton exited on Dec. 2 for the Team Canada West selection camp and the World Junior A Challenge in Truro, N.S. for the ensuing two weeks, missing six league games.
Combined with injury to top forwards Blaine Caton, Braeden Tuck, Levi Glasman, Carter Jones and Ryan Murphy, the Smokies were in tough against Interior rivals, and a one-win-in-10 game slide saw Trail go from first to fourth in the Interior Division.
“Ultimately for us, the last game in Vernon, although a loss, I thought we played more like ourselves and we found our groove again,” said Leung. “To play like that with our full complement, and to play like that every game, gives us that opportunity to win and the same success we had at the beginning of the season.”
While the Smokies faltered, Barton and Armour had outstanding performances at the World Jr. A Challenge and return to the Smoke Eaters confident and determined.
“Obviously I wanted to see these boys win when I was gone, and they’ve been struggling, but hopefully we can figure it out and get it back on track,” said Armour. “We just have to forget what has happened the past few games, and go forward from there, and focus on the next game.”
Armour scored four goals and six points to lead Team Canada West to gold, which included a dramatic game-tying and overtime goal in a 4-3 quarter-final win over Team Canada East, and another in the 5-1 final victory over the U.S.A.
“I just tried to play my best every shift,” said Armour. “I had a pretty good tourney so it was good. Obviously playing against these guys, and having rivalries against the Vernon and Penticton guys, it was cool (playing with them), we had some chemistry there.”
While Armour, Howarth, and Barton were away, the Smokies only win came against the Warriors on Dec. 9, but inconsistent play plagued West K as much as it did the Smokies. The Warriors earned wins over the Penticton Vees and Wenatchee Wild in December, but lost matches to Merritt and Trail. West Kelowna (18-15-1-1) sits in fifth place in the Interior, just four points back of the Smoke Eaters.
Despite Trail’s slump, a quick look at last year’s record shows a much improved Smoke Eaters team this year. The Smokies headed into the 2016 Christmas break in third place in the Interior with a 16-17-3-0 record, compared to their 20-13-2-0 record in 2017.
With the addition of Wenatchee, the calibre of play in the Interior is even more competitive than last season, and with injuries and absences, Trail’s misfortune multiplied with a heavy dose of Interior teams on the December schedule. Trail went 5-3 against the Interior Division in September and October, but were 4-7 in November-December, while enjoying an 11-4 run against Mainland and Island Division opponents over the first four months.
“It’s the nature of our division,” said Leung. “It’s tough, and honestly for my money we think the Interior is the best division in the BCHL, and that’s what you want, you want every game to be meaningful, and every game to have high stakes, because at the end of the day that’s what you’re going to get in the playoffs and you want your team to go through that adversity and that fire, and hopefully come through tempered and ready for success.”
With 23 games remaining, Trail will look to get back on track starting with the Warriors to close out 2017 and a tilt against the Wild on Wednesday to open the new year. With good health and a full line up, Leung says this year can be the most successful Smoke Eaters season in its BCHL history.
“Ultimately, for us this is the year we think we can make a serious run for not only a BCHL championship but a national one as well. Take that for what it’s worth … but the important thing for us is to hit playoffs in a groove and make the most of our opportunity to be successful in the playoffs.”
Trail plays the Warriors tomorrow (Friday) in West Kelowna, then return to the Cominco Arena on Saturday with the puck drop at 7 p.m.
Smoke Signals: The Smoke Eaters also made a change on the backend, releasing 19-year-old defenceman and Trail native, Jake Yuris from the team in hopes of adding a top defender before the Jan. 10 trade deadline. Leung says the move was difficult considering the timing, but necessary in order to give Yuris a chance to join another junior team before deadline. Yuris played in 17 games collecting three assists.
“It wasn’t an easy decision and it certainly was tough for us to do that as well, and obviously it was a difficult time of year to do it. But when you look at it from the point of view of making sure you have somewhere to go, doing it earlier gives him more options.”