The Penticton Vees (23-4-0-0) make their first trip (regular season) to Trail tonight to face the third place Smoke Eaters (14-13-0-1) at Cominco Arena; face-off is 7 PM. Tonight marks just the second meeting of the season between the two Interior foes and the first in two months, as they’ve not played one another since the Vees’ home opener on October 1st.
The Vees come into tonight’s game riding a five-game win streak and have won eight of their last nine games. The Vees are coming off a 3-2 overtime win over the Chilliwack Chiefs last Saturday at the SOEC; their second consecutive overtime win at home. Trail has lost four of their last six and are coming off a split of their weekend home stand against Chilliwack (3-1 W) and Merritt (3-2 L).
Penticton comes into tonight with a 15-point lead on second place Vernon and are 17-points ahead of the third place Smokies and have a game in hand. Trail was leapfrogged by the Vipers Saturday night for second place, after they lost to Merritt and the Vipers beat Coquitlam 6-0. A win tonight by Trail would move them back into a second place tie with Vernon.
How things can change so quickly in junior hockey. A week ago the Vees were healthy for the first time all year, with a healthy extra forward and defenceman sitting in the stands. Fast-forward to this week and the Vees are feeling the pinch, as defenceman Mitch Meek is out for the immediate future with an upper-body injury, after taking a wicked hit in the game against Chilliwack. Compounding matters is the absence of fellow 20-year-old defenceman Gabe Bast, who is down in Vancouver for a scheduled check-up with a specialist for that lower-body injury that plagued him all of last season; he’s likely back Friday. Penticton will also call-up 18-year-old defenceman Konsta Jaske from the Summerland Steam of the KIJHL. Jaske is no stranger to the BCHL or Trail, as the rear-guard spent last season with the Wenatchee Wild and started this season with the Smoke Eaters, playing in five games with the orange and black.
The Vees have also bit hit by the flu bug, as forward Jamie Armstrong likely won’t play tonight as he is battling strep throat. He tried to fight through the illness Saturday but hasn’t practiced this week. Armstrong is a game-time decision but it’s very likely Jared Nash fills his spot up front.
All indications point to Nolan Hildebrand getting the start in goal tonight. Mat Robson was down south at a school visit this week but is back and will backup in Trail. Hildebrand is 5-0-0 in six starts this year, posting a 2.42 goals-against average and sports a .898 save percentage. Hildebrand picked up his fifth win in Coquitlam two weeks ago back on November 18th.
Trail has been platooning their goaltenders in their last five games as 20-year-old Zach Dyment and 18-year-old Linden Marshall have been rotating starts in the last two weeks. Both played over the weekend, with Dyment picking up the win Friday, stopping 36 of 37 shots. Marshall was tagged with the loss on Saturday, stopping 28 of 31 shots against the Centennials. Dyment faced the Vees in the first meeting of the season and was very good, stopping 43 of 46 shots in that 3-2 overtime loss.
One line that has been hot is the trio of Duncan Campbell, Nicholas Jones and Chris Klack. Klack is the hottest Vee of late, with points in four straight (1-5-6) and in eight of his last nine. Jones has points in four of five (4-4-8) and leads the Vees in scoring with 34 points. Campbell has fit right in ever since signing with Penticton, as the 20-year-old has points in five of his last six (2-4-6).
Trail has made some significant strides under first-year Head Coach Cam Keith. The Smokies are third in the Interior Division and have the second-most home wins in the division, right behind the Vees. They also pack an offensive punch, as they have five players with 20 or more points and four with 26 or more points. 20-year-old Luke Santerno leads the Smokies in scoring with 39 points in 28 games and recently committed to Bentley University for next season. Santerno has been everything for the Smokies as he has points in 10 of his last 11 games (12-4-16) and had a six-game goal streak from November 8th – 20th. Kale Howarth sits second in scoring with 34 points and following him is ex-Vees’ forward Josh Laframboise who has 26 points.
The Vees were 7-0 last year against the Smoke Eaters, winning all three games in Trail by a combined score of 17-5. This is the second of seven games this year between the two teams, as they meet again December 14th back in Penticton. The Vees next visit to Trail after tonight isn’t until January 28th.
Tonight’s game can be heard on EZ Rock AM 800 locally, or on the iHeartRadio Canada App for your iPhone, iPad, smartphone or tablet. The game is also available through the BCHL’s webcast at www.HockeyTV.com.