The one thing that remains constant is the respect emanating from both sides as the Vees and Trail Smoke Eaters face off in the second round of the BCHL playoffs Friday.
“They are a very offensively gifted team and more than just their top line,” said Vees head coach, GM and president Fred Harbinson. “Everyone wants to focus on (Kale) Howarth and (Ross) Armour but they have a multitude of guys that can score and make plays. It should be a great test for us.”
The stats say it all. The Smoke Eaters finished second in the league in goals during the regular season (218), only the Wenatchee Wild had more (241). Howarth and linemate Armour were tied for first in scoring for the Smoke Eaters. But, as the Vees coach said, they aren’t the only arsenal the Smoke Eaters have. Seven skaters recorded 40 or more points during the regular season. While the Vees have depended on Owen Sillinger for most of their point production during the regular season, other veterans have stepped up in the postseason including Taylor Ward who had four goals and three assists in four games in the first round.
“You have to respect their talent level. They’re the same Penticton team as they always are, so high-end forwards, a really balanced team and they play really structured systems,” said Smoke Eater coach Cam Keith. “We’ll have to try to do what we do best, and try to grind them down a bit, slow things down and play really disciplined hockey.”
Harbinson admitted it has been the best of times and the worst of times when it comes to hitting the ice against the Smoke Eaters. Both teams had gone through bouts of injuries in the six times they battled in the regular season. The Vees still hold the upper hand (4-1-0-1) in the regular season series, for what it’s worth.
“We have had probably one of our weakest games of the entire year the first time we played them and that was in their building,” said Harbinson.
“We were 4-1-1 but really Howarth was out the last three games so that makes a big difference. On our end we had guys out at different times, so everything is in the past now.”
Both teams swept their first-round opponents — the Vees taking the Coquitlam Express in four and the Smoke Eaters defeating the West Kelowna Warriors. Harbinson expects this playoff round to be a bit more exciting.
“There is more than just scoring. There are different things that each player is going to have to do. The one thing about us is that we are a team that doesn’t rely on one or two guys. So if you are not scoring you are going to have to be able to do something else and in the playoffs maybe it is a blocked shot, maybe a clear at the right time — just making the right play at the right time is usually how you win games in the playoffs.”
A message heard loud and clear by the Vees veterans.
“I like to take pride in being a playoff player, I think that is when guys like to step up. I have a good line right now and we have some really good chemistry with (Lukas) Sillinger and Cassidy Bowes,” said Jackson Keane. “It’s our last chance, our last couple months of junior hockey here and obviously the stakes are a little higher and usually that brings out the best in players.”
Just a day later, that might have all changed. Bowes was injured in the Vees practice earlier this week and now they will be looking for someone to fill that third line spot on left wing.
On the opposite side of the rink, Smoke Eaters assistant captain Howarth said he knows it is not going to be an easy series but is ready to give the Vees a “good fight.”
“You just have to play simple, and skate that much harder, just out-compete them, but it’s all about staying composed. They’re going to try and stick you, hook you, you just can’t let it get you frustrated, you have to keep working through it. I’m pretty confident with the skill level our line has that we can find open space and we’re pretty opportunistic so hopefully we can put a few in the back of the net.”
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