When: Mar. 9, 7:30 PM
Where: Cominco Arena, Trail
The Smokies close out the home portion of the 2011-12 schedule tonight, hosting a Merritt Centennials club focused on locking down home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The absence of key contributors has affected the Smokies' run of late; Tuesday night's 10-0 defeat in Penticton was the club's 12 consecutive loss, though for the first time in nearly three weeks the team iced a full complement of skaters with APs Dane Birks, Tre Potskin, Colton Schell and Mitch Foyle all dressing.
Tonight's game serves as an opportunity to give fans in Trail one last reason to cheer, and a chance as well to provide some optimism for the 2012-13 season. It's been a long year, and a season of change for the orange and black, but a continually-developing core brings a lot of promise into the off-season.
It's also the final home game for overagers Clayton McEwan and Erik Cooper tonight. The two 20 year-olds are both character guys, and leaders in the dressing room and on the ice, and quality individuals too. I'm sure they'd love nothing more than to rattle off a victory in their Cominco Arena finale.
Last Meeting: Trail raced out to a 3-0 first period lead on a natural hat-trick by Garrett McMullen when these two sides last met February 29th in Trail, but the Centennials took advantage of tired legs, scoring three times in the third period and adding an OT winner to collect a 4-3 victory. In six meetings this season the Smokies have a 2-2-1-1 record against Merritt.
Our Opponent: The home-and-home set brings added importance to the Cents, who sit two points up on Prince George for second place in the Interior Conference, each with two games left to play (the Spruce Kings host Penticton for a pair of games tonight and tomorrow). Merritt is red-hot too. OT hero from last week Brandon Bruce has 7 goals in his last 8 games; no fewer than ELEVEN Merritt players are on a point-per-game, or near point-per-game clip over the last eight contests. For a team that typically doesn't score a lot of goals, the sudden wave of offense has to come as a pleasant surprise for head coach Luke Pierce. Tyler Steel, who rebounded very well after allowing three early goals last Wednesday, is likely to get the start between the pipes tonight. He has played each of the three previous contests at Cominco Arena between these two sides this season.
In the Press Box: Trail's Marley Keca, Luke Bertolucci, Adam Fares and Brandon Long remain out, while D Joren Johnson returned to the lineup Tuesday in Penticton. Merritt forward Brent Fletcher serves the second of his two-game suspension this evening. Centennials play-caller Alex Grebenyuk writes on his blog D-men Tyler Martin and Dylan Chanter are also expected out tonight.
Broadcast Info: Join me for all the pay-per-view action here. Pre-game at 7:25, faceoff at 7:30.
KIJHL Tonight: The Neil Murdoch division final shifts to Castlegar for a must-win Game Three for the Rebels (7:30, Complex), who trail Beaver Valley 2-0 after a devastating loss Wednesday night. Leading 4-3 late in the third period, Castlegar was assessed a delay of game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass, allowing Tyler Collins to tuck home an equalizer with 38 seconds left in the game. Ryan Edwards scored the OT winner to give the 'Hawks a 5-4 win. Beaver Valley head coach Terry Jones told me yesterday his club struggled with discipline in Game Two, and will be hard-pressed to get an early start in a hostile environment, despite the fact there will surely be a large complement of Nitehawks fans in Castlegar tonight.