The bitter rivalry between the Trail Smoke Eaters and Penticton Vees resumes Thursday, March 31 when the two teams meet in the best-of-seven BCHL Interior Conference quarterfinal.
Trail didn’t win a game against the Vees this year, however, they played Penticton tough taking them to overtime in two of the five match ups.
“Definitely a top opponent,” said Smoke Eaters head coach and GM Tim Fragle. “We feel that in three of the games we played we were right with them. Two of them go into overtime, and two that got away from us.”
Trail finished the season in eighth place in the Interior Conference with 45 points and a 20-29-2-2-1 record, while Penticton topped all BCHL teams with a 43-8-1-2 record and 89 points. In spite of the disparity in almost every category, offensive and defensive, there is reason for hope.
The Smoke Eaters are coming off a 7-5 victory over the second-seed Salmon Arm Silverbacks (36-12-4-2) in their final regular season game on Saturday and will look to use that traction when they meet the Vees.
“We played a really good game against a tough opponent in a tough rink,” said Fragle. “It was a bit of a rollercoaster game. We got the lead and it slipped away from us, but then we were able to come back and win and draw a little bit of energy off of that.”
Trail has endured its share of setbacks recently with injuries to top scorer Brady Hunter, defenceman Cameron Moger, and goalie Evan Fradette. Fragle hopes to have Hunter back in the line up as the series progresses.
The Smoke Eaters will need goaltender Cole Tisdale to be at his best, a tight, disciplined defence, and the forwards to capitalize on their scoring chances.
“To give ourselves a chance we have to play a good team game and we have to play good structured hockey,” said Fragle. “That’s a big part of it. They are one of the teams that has almost doubled their power play opportunities throughout the year than most, so we’ll have to be disciplined as well to give ourselves a chance to play them five on five.”
Penticton ended their season in dominant fashion, gutting the last place Merritt Centennials 10-2, and outshooting them by a 73-17 margin.
Yet, the Vees also have a recent history of suffering breakdowns at the worse possible playoff moments.
In 2018, the Smoke Eaters knocked off the number-1 Vees in a thrilling Game 7 semifinal victory at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton.
Then in 2019, a similar scenario occurred in the quarterfinal. The Cowichan Valley Capitals crossed over to play Penticton because Cowichan had the second worst record in the league with just 40 points. But the lowly Caps shocked the vaunted Vees, winning the series in six games.
“We all know in the playoffs, there is a top seed and then there’s the lower seeds. We as a team, have to embrace the underdog role and just go and play and put a lot of pressure on them by playing the right way.”
In other Interior matches, #2 seed Salmon Arm plays the #7 Wenatchee Wild, #3West Kelowna Warriors face off against #6 Vernon Vipers and the #5 Cranbrook Bucks take on #4 Prince George Spruce Kings.
“The playoffs is a new opportunity and anything can happen,” added Fragle. “You get to that second season, and there’s a lot of pressure on them (the Vees) to go on a long run.
“Sometimes, pressure can either get the best out of you or get the best of you as well.”
Trail plays the Vees in Penticton on Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m. at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
Games 3 and 4 go at the Trail Memorial Centre on Monday, April 4 and Tuesday April 5 with the puck drop at 7 p.m.