Thursday, March 6, 2008
Today we've discovered the future considerations in the deal for Kevin Koopman are the rights to forward Dylan Herold. Trail picked up Koopman from Merritt in what amounted to an emergency trade deadline deal after Cam Brodie got hurt and Paul Levarsky took off to Slovakia. We knew that a deal for a player like Koopman was going to cost the Smokies something of value. You don't get something for nothing. Unfortunately Koopman and the Smokies didn't go on an extended playoff run, but I think it'd be fair to say that without him or someone similar it would have been a lot tougher to stay ahead of Prince George and Quesnel in that race to the final playoff spot. Koopman came in here and played on the top pairing with Scott Warner. He plays a different game than Brodie, but he filled those minutes effectively and played a very significant role in the big turn around for Trail in the last month.
However, it's still difficult to lose a guy like Herold in what is a pretty typical "rental player" situation. He's well loved in the dressing room and a guy who can play any role for a hockey team. It sucks to see him go, but it's also a great opportunity for him. The operation in Merritt has certainly helped earn several big name players great scholarship opportunities. Herold will take his size and skill into a smaller rink with a veteran coach. Perhaps the new scenery will help him blossom into the kind of offensive player we all believe he can be in this league.
There were high expectations for Herold this year. He started on the right note with a goal in the first game of the season, but didn't score again until the last game. I think the early injury set him back significantly. When you're just getting into gear at the start of the season a leg injury forces you to basically start all over again. I'm not sure he was necessarily at full physical condition when he came back, but it certainly took him a bit to find his game again. While he never really found the scoring touch of last season, he did keep playing a very good two way game. There are some players in this league who are almost useless to you if they aren't scoring. Herold is a guy who makes important contributions even if they're not goals and assists. He told me that when he couldn't find that scoring touch again, he just made sure he was doing the little things that could help his team as much as possible.
Dylan has a great attitude and is going to be a great member of the Merritt organization. I know he'll be missed in this dressing room.
He told me yesterday that one of his biggest disappointments in leaving Trail is that he had such great billets here. Doesn't that tell you all you need to know about how important those families are to a hockey team's success? The Smoke Eaters have a group of fantastic families who make it really easy for the guys to settle in. They are in my opinion a great recruiting tool. I only ever hear good things from the players about the "unreal" billets they have in this area.
Herold's loss opens up another spot for a new forward. Right now we're looking at a list of possible returning guys that only includes Corcoran, Bulach, Mailey, Ourosov, Davis and Martin. That's room for at least six new starters and a couple of more guys. Lots of opportunity for new recruits and guys who will be taking part in the evaluation camp next month in Princeton. Lots of room for local guys like those Beaver Valley Nitehawk players who are doing so well in the KIJHL playoff so far. Lots of room for Jim Ingram to put his fingerprints on this roster.
On D the returning group right now could be Brodie, Geerin, Kinnebrew, Raley and Hill. In goal the only possible returning player is Barclay.
That means out of eleven possible returning players, four of them are guys Ingram brought into the fold. There will only be five guys left from Tim Kehler's time in Trail. This will absolutely be Jim Ingram's team next year. We'll get a better idea of what kind of players he wants to bring into Trail and how good of a talent evaluator he is.
Lets see what he can do.
Good luck, Dylan!
(Dylan Herold scored 12 goals and 16 assists for 28 points in two seasons with the Smoke Eaters)
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
The season is over for the Trail Smoke Eaters. Things kind of went out with a whimper in game 3 after all the fireworks of game 2. Vernon wrapped things up with a fairly dominating 5-0 victory. Trail was in it for the first period, but the Vipers came away with the only marker. In the second period Trail's only goal was called back due to a correct offside call and the Smokies lost Captain Kevin Limbert to a game misconduct on a hit from behind against Kellen Jones. That pretty much sucked all the remaining wind out of a battered Trail team.
Those last two games don't tell the story of how close the two teams were this year. In the regular season 5 of 6 games were decided by a single goal. Three of those games in overtime. Game 1 was an absolute thriller that Trail almost won. However, the Smokies just didn't have the manpower to respond to the emotional and physical toll of game 2. The loss of Stefan Decosse and suspension of Kevin Koopman, added to the loss of Ryan Bulach and Cam Brodie, it was just too big a hill for the boys to climb. They sure worked their butts off in the last month of the season. They came together as a hockey club. However, they were down key guys from a team that had trouble scoring goals at 100%. Against a nearly 100% Vipers club that was a tall task.
Those are a lot of excuses for me to be giving them, but they're also the facts. This team dealt with more adversity this year than some teams do in two or three seasons. That adversity builds character, and boy these guys have that in spades. They came together as a team as they went through that awful January. They grew, matured and turned into a true team. I have met a lot of people in hockey, but I haven't met many guys with more character than I did on this Smoke Eaters team from the president, the executive, the coaches, the staff, the fans on down. It's been an honour to work with everyone on this team this year. If character, class and integrity determined who won hockey games these guys would be champs for sure.
However, goal scoring wins hockey games... and this team just didn't have enough. They had guys who would do everything at both ends of the ice. But they didn't have enough guys who could snipe a key goal at a key time. I know from talking to the staff that goal scoring and some size up front are going to be their priorities in the off season. That aside, Coach Ingram told me character is very important to him. He loves the character guys he had here this year, and while obviously they want a better team next year, he wants any player that wears the Orange and Black to be a guy that will cherish the honour instead of someone who sees it as just a stop on the road to somewhere else.
There are seven guys at least on this team who cherished that honour and won't be back. Kevin Limbert, Casey Shade, Stefan Decosse, August Aiken, Scott Warner, Kevin Koopman and Grant Rollheiser are all either too old to come back or heading off to scholarships next season. I got a chance to get to know every one of those guys at some level and I wish them nothing but the best in the future. I bet Limbert and Koopman will have some nice battles when Yale takes on Brown next season. Rollheiser is going to win that starting job at Boston. Warner will proudly serve his country on the blue line at Westpoint. Shade, Aiken and Decosse are going to represent anywhere they go with absolute pride and respect. I'll miss watching them all play.
Thanks to all those associated with the team for making this an absolute joy and pleasure for me this year. Whether it's the parents I talked to online and at games, the fans who called our show or chatted with me at the rink, the executive and volunteers who work countless hours for no pay to make this team work, the coaches who always have time for the annoying radio announcer or the players who always treated me with respect... except that on time Limbert stole my food at Rave's!
Hockey is a sport known for the class and respect of its players. It may be more violent than any other sport in North America, but the guys respect the chance they have to play this great game at a level most of us only wish we got to play. This year's Smokies didn't do what they wanted to do on the ice, but they can hold their heads high. They're all quality people who will go on to do good things in life one way or another.
And for those who move on after this season, that banner in the dressing room tells the story.
You're a Smoke Eater for life.
...What a game tonight in Prince George. Salmon Arm was down 6-1 midway through the second period to the point where the announcers were suggesting it was time to get those buses ready for a trip to game 5. Not so fast! The Silverbacks answered back to make it 6-4 after two periods. Gillis was pulled after the 6th goal, but Coach Ferster put him back into the game to start the third period in what I think was a great move to show your goaltender you have faith in him. He did the job and the 'Backs came back to win 7-6 in overtime. A heart breaker for the Spruce Kings and a massive, massive lift for Salmon Arm's momentum. If you don't get some momentum from a win like that you're made of stone.
...Powell River surprised me by knocking off Surrey. I thought for sure that tough Eagles team was built for playoff success. Tartaglione looked like a game stealing goaltender too. The Kings must have just stepped their game up. Now they're going to take that underdog mentality into Nanaimo. Clippers better take them seriously.
...Burnaby and Victoria go back to Burnaby for Game 5. You would have to think that gives the Express the advantage as Victoria couldn't take advantage of their chance to win the series at home.
...Vernon will now play Penticton while Westside takes on Salmon Arm. Those four teams have clearly been the class of the Interior talent wise this year so it's not really any surprise. That being said, watch out for the other four teams next season. They may not be rich, big market squads. However, they are all developing strong talent from within their organization. Those top four will have to fight hard to hold on to those spots next year. I have to say I expect Penticton to walk away with the BCHL title this year, but these teams all have a lot of talent. Should be fun to watch.
...Beaver Valley and Nelson are putting on a hell of a show in the KIJHL Neil Murdoch West Division finals. Nelson won tonight in overtime to make the series 2-1 for the Nitehawks. The road team has won every game so far. BV has been to overtime in 4 of their 6 playoff games. That shows you just how tight things are between Nelson, Beaver Valley and the now eliminated Castlegar Rebels. Any Trail fans looking for a hockey fix would do well to take in Game 4 at the Beaver Valley Arena in Fruitvale tomorrow night.
...So who do you guys think did the best job for us on colour this year? We had the BCHL encyclopedia Randy Emery, the lively Scottie McKinnon and a talented selection of Smokies players. I wish I could have someone up with me every game (I mean lets be honest don't you all get sick of my voice after a while?) and those guys sure made the job easier when they were with me.
...This was my first season as a full time broadcaster for one particular team. If any of you listeners have any thoughts on what you liked and didn't like about how we covered the Smoke Eaters feel free to send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. We do these broadcasts for the fans and so any feedback will be taken seriously. Don't forget that while the season may be over our coverage of the Smoke Eaters off season continues on Mountain FM. We have sports updates in our news casts from 6am to 6pm daily. From 6pm to Midnight I'll still be hosting our sports/rock radio show "Overtime" and we'll be taking a look back on the season with the Smoke Eaters. We're also going to break the news on any new recruits. If you ever have any thoughts on the team or any other sports feel free to call in at 1-877-560-1010. If you disagree with me... even better!
Monday, March 3, 2008
However, Kevin Koopman and Braden Pimm each received two games for being involved in the second fight after the whistle. I am a bit confused about all of this because I could've sworn that it was originally Mailey and Crowell who were set to go toe to toe before the pairings changed. If Palazzo came in on Mailey after the start, isn't he kind of late to the dance? Especially considering he then threw about 20 punches on a guy 8 inches shorter than him.
Barry Zanier received a three game suspension for his gross misconduct during the game, but both head coaches will be on the bench tonight.
The league also reviewed the Chris Crowell hit that likely ended Stefan Decosse's season and ruled that there was nothing there to suspend him for. I still haven't seen a replay. I've heard conflicting sides. Some say it was from behind, some say it was boarding, some say it was a good clean hockey play. It's not for me to decide. I will say that Crowell has hurt two guys on this team is a relatively short span. It's good to play with an edge, but how about some respect for the other guys on the ice?
So Trail loses one of their top offensive players in Decosse to injury and one of their top D to suspension. Vernon loses a third liner. Tough trade off for the Smokies.
They'll be running with 10 forwards and 5 back on D. It's a shorthanded group with nothing to lose. A lot of guys fighting for their junior careers. People may be ready to write these boys off, but back someone up against a wall and see what happens.
They may come out swinging.
Game time is 7:30, lets get as many people into that great old rink as we can.
Before I get into my notes on the 7-2 Vernon win in Game 2, I want to comment on Stefan Decosse. He is easily one of the nicest and funniest guys I've met in hockey. A total class act who deserved more than he got this year. Three times this regular season he was forced to the sideline with a serious injury. On Saturday night it happened for a fourth time. His junior hockey career may be over. When this guy is at his best he's easily a point per game player at this level. He made the rare transition from Junior B to Junior A hockey as a 19 year old and became an impact player almost immediately. When you look at Trail's record this year and wonder why it isn't quite as good as you thought it might be, injuries to Stefan Decosse are a big reason for that.
If the Trail Smoke Eaters didn't have enough motivation to win Monday night's Game 3 (and they do), they could also do it for guys like Decosse who I'm sure desperately want to chance to get out there on the ice again. Win that game, win this series, and he might just have a chance to play again. This game is for all those veteran players who don't want their careers to be over. For Shade, Limbert, Aiken, Koopman, Warner, Rollheiser and Decosse. Those who won't be back when that final buzzer goes on the 2007-2008 season. A Smokies win on Monday night gives them another chance to play hockey in the best Junior A league in the world. A Smokies win on Monday gives them another chance to fight, scratch and claw for playoff glory.
I hope they all get it. This is a damn classy group of young men who I've been proud to cover this year. I hope they get another reason to celebrate together.
GAME 2 NOTES
...Decosse got a penalty before the puck drop for not getting off the ice in time at the end of warm up. Referee Chris Hartley was a big part of this game from the drop of the puck. Not saying he was the deciding factor, but he was sure more visible than you want any ref to be. I like a ref to be as invisible and irrelevant as possible. I hadn't seen this rule called all year, and from conflicting reports I heard that he was either very close to off or right at the bench when the buzzer went off. To call that kind of penalty at the start of a playoff game seems absurd. However, this is more of a rules issue to me. I can understand wanting to stay on schedule, but if you're going to have a penalty for this warm up thing it should be a misconduct and not an actual shorthanded situation.
...Vernon got up 3-0 in the first 5 minutes by taking advantage of two early power plays and one defensive break down at even strength. From what I could see Rollheiser really didn't have a chance on any of the goals. The Vipers puck control on the PP seems to be tiring the Trail PKers as they don't seem to steal the puck and ice it much, and as a result they can't change their guys as much as they usually would. I thought the call on Limbert (listed as roughing on the box score I had) was a pretty soft one given the situation.
...August Aiken's goal was one of the prettiest I've seen all year long. Just a gorgeous play. Shade started it with a strong read in the defensive zone. He moved the puck to Herold who gained the line and made an alert drop pass to Aiken. Then Shade and Herold did what Coach Ingram has been talking about all season long... go to the net. They went and created some havoc in front of Gore while Aiken danced in with three great moves to his back hand. Gore was completely fooled and sprawled on the ice before Aiken just tucked the puck in for this second in two games. Great play.
...Trail had all the momentum in the second half of the first period. They threw it all away in the first minute of the second. The Bischop/Jones line didn't give up the puck for the full 60 seconds before making it 4-1 on a rebound. Those guys got way too much room to pick up rebounds. That was one of the biggest flaws in the Trail play in game 2. It seemed like the Vipers were picking up all the rebounds and keeping the play alive over and over again.
...Decosse made a nice move to the net and threw a puck in there that bounced off feet and gave Mailey a shot at a goal. It may be his last ever BCHL play. After sending the puck to the front of the goal Decosse was drilled into the boards by Chris Crowell. I had my eye on the front of the net and as a result didn't see the hit itself. I was told by Patrick Haas (play by play for Salmon Arm) that he looked at the video replay and the hit was clean. Everyone else in the press box agreed with that call, but they're all Vipers people so we both have our biases right? I have no reason not to believe Patrick's call on that, but I didn't see the hit well. Regardless it looks like the impact into the boards (could have maybe been called boarding?) will take Decosse out for a while again. I won't say what I do know about the injury because it's playoff time, but I'm concerned that this will end up being the last time I get to see him play at this level.
...Paul Mailey may only be 5'8 but he doesn't care and he still challged Crowell right after the hit. That's the kind of attitude this whole team has these days. Stand up for each other regardless of the size of the guys. Corcoran stepped in and fought Crowell instead while Palazzo decided he should go with Mailey. Explain that one to me. 6'4 Palazzo going with 5'8 Mailey? The linesmen were busy breaking up every other fight while they let that one go on for far too long. Palazzo's reach advantage was absurd. There was nothing Mailey could do while he gamely kept fighting and fighting while being hit with right after right to the head. Kinnebrew went with Bigos while Koopman fought Pimm. Corcoran, Koopman, Kinnnebrew, Crowell, Bigos and Pimm were all ejected for getting in the second, third and fourth fights after the whistle. The refs judged that Mailey and Palazzo were in the first fight. I'd suggest it was Crowell and Mailey who dropped their gloves first if that matters... they just didn't end up actually going. That could apparently mean automatic suspensions for all the guys who were kicked out (we saw something similar with Steve Ourosov earlier this year which was surprisingly enough the other time Paul Mailey was in a fight) and suspensions for Coach Ingram and Coach Ferner. In the midst of all this Barry Zanier was also kicked out of the game and given a gross misconduct. That could mean three games for him.
...The league has shown recently that those automatic suspensions are not necessarily set in stone (Rob Short's was recently overturned after league review) so I guess anything is possible. However, suspensions are far more problematic for Trail than Vernon. The Vipers had a few healthy scratches who could step in. Trail does not. With the likely loss of Decosse, the injuries to Bulach and Brodie, and possible suspensions for Corcoran, Kinnebrew and Koopman... we're talking about a roster of 9 forwards and 4 D. That would make surviving possible elimination much tougher. I think the kind of injury trouble Trail has faced should cause some in the league to review their card system. Should there not be some sort of emergency injury rules similar to those in the NHL? If an NHL team is so devastated by injury they can call up guys from Major Junior who can't usually be called up. They can also call up AHL players after their maximum transfers if they have an emergency injury situation. What such system exists in the BCHL? Out of cards, too many injuries and APs occupied? Out of luck. I really feel there should be more flexibility in the card system. Look what happened with a guy like Levarsky just up and leaving for Slovakia and he costs Trail a roster spot. Something to chew on.
...Patrick Martin hit Kellen Jones from behind and got himself 2 and a game for it. On the way back to the dressing room the refs skated him right by Zurevinski. He must have said something to Martin as the two exchanged words and shoves at centre ice. There's no way they should have been allowed to get that close. Poor control by the officials in that case. After both players were sent to the locker room benches cleared into the hall way. Something apparently happened back there, but I was told on the bus afterwords that there was absolutely no physical contact between the two teams or any of their players in the halls. That's important as during the game rumours were going around that Martin and Zurevinski had been in a shoving match back there, but again I'm told that never happened. In the middle of this mess Jimmy Geerin apparently told referee Hartly that he'd lost control of the game. That was enough for him to get a game misconduct, despite the fact that Trail was all ready down to 4 D. Stuff like that seems to indicate to me that Jimmy was right.
...Final score ended up being 7-2. After the initial fight halfway through the game I don't think you can analyze the game from a hockey stand point the rest of the way. The key to the actual game portion of the action was Trail's PK failing against the Vipers early and Trail having a major let down a minute into the second. If Bischop doesn't score there the Smokies had momentum and could have gotten back into the game. They were put into a hole by the early penalty calls (both of which I feel are questionable at this time of the year), but that happens sometimes. Refs are going to make mistakes on penalty calls and you can't let your opponent's go 2 for 2 on their PP in the first period.
...The Smokies may have been content to let the Vipers have the perimeter in game 1, but they also gave them all the rebounds and way too much room on the PP in game 2. Bad referee or not, they have to do a better job on special teams to make a come back in this series. They may have to do that with a very short bench on Monday night. Nothing great ever got done without adversity. The Smokies have had enough of that for five seasons, but none of that matters once the puck drops Monday night. Win and you play, lose and you go home. Hope we get a big crowd out for that one.
I don't like to comment on officials. I think they're generally underpaid and under appreciated. These guys have a thankless job and they don't get much for doing it. That being said an official must behave maturely and professionally. They are older and have much less invested in games than the players. You are going to get yelled at and sworn at. Turn the other cheek and don't let your emotions get the better of you. If you as an official think you're the show or let your ego and emotions get involved in your decision making, than you don't belong on that ice. There are things I heard about the game on Saturday night that make me question some of those things in this case. I used to umpire baseball as a 13 year old boy with 40 year old parents yelling at me, trying to intimidate me, and using the kind of language you can't ever imagine an adult using with a child. I prided myself in never letting it get to me and in never responding to their outbursts emotionally. Players do it, coaches do it, but referees aren't trying to win anything... there's no excuse for losing your cool. When you do you lose the respect of those players and coaches you have to control. When you lose their respect you are in for a very long and embarrassing night. Embarrassing for you, the league and all of junior hockey.
See you all at Cominco Arena on Monday night. Seriously, tell your friends and family to come out... we need a big crowd for an emotional lift. This one is going to be a battle.
Saturday, March 1, 2008
The Smoke Eaters are a confident group right now. They lost 3-2 last night, but the feeling around the room is that they were in the game and absolutely should be able to step up and earn a split here tonight. They're comfortable with the way the game went in a lot of ways. However, they want to make sure they don't take as many penalties (though they didn't like some of the calls) and get some more rubber on Gore in Vernon's net.
I think that's reasonable. It was a 3-2 game with some real close calls both ways. Stefan Decosse nearly put a puck in with two seconds left in yesterday's game. It was that close to an overtime. Put some more pucks on net and you never know what could happen.
The Smokies also realize they came out a bit flat. They think it was playoff nerves. They were a little hesitant in the first, but once they got a few chances they shook off the nerves and played with Vernon the rest of the way. They aren't expecting to deal with a nervous or tentative start today.
Vernon's Coach Ferner says they didn't get as much traffic as they wanted yesterday. He wants more guys going to the net for second and third chances. He liked their puck possession and wants to use their size and puck possession to take advantage of Trail's shorter bench and tire them out.
It's a huge game tonight. If Trail can earn a split we're guaranteed games Monday and Tuesday. Either way expect another great battle between teams who have been close every game this year. 6 out of 7 have been decided by one goal. There's very little reason to expect any different tonight.
What do you guys think? What are the keys for a Smokies victory? Let me know here or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pre-game show starts at 6:45pm tonight on Mountain FM.
Tickets for Game 3 and Game 4 are on sale Monday afternoon from 12pm to 4pm at the Cominco Arena ticket window. Head over during your lunch break and make sure you're hooked up. I really hope to see a big crowd out on Monday and Tuesday. This has been some great hockey lately, and boy would it make a difference to have a big and loud crowd at the rink. Tell your friends, tell your wife, tell your kids, your mother in law, your boss... it's the playoffs! As far as I'm concerned no hockey fan should miss seeing the playoffs live. Even if you don't go to any other game all year, the playoffs are something else. I expect all you fans to badger everyone you know until they say yes. I know I'm going to try, but I'm new in town so that doesn't work as well for me.
If you aren't convinced, remember that playoff time is your last chance to see all the departing players. Your last chance to see Fruitvale native and future Yale star Kevin Limbert's skill and determination, "Toe Drag" Stefan Decosse and his many dangles, the speed, grit and hard work of Casey Shade, the speed, acceleration, dangles and great shot of August Aiken, the alert plays of Westpoint Millitary Academy's Scott Warner, Senators draft pick Kevin Koopman's big shot and big hits, and possible future NHL draft pick, Boston University's Grant Rollheiser... the league's best goaltender in 2008. We're all going to miss these guys, and do yourself a favour, get at least a few last looks here and help them go on a big playoff run.
That out of the way....
I love the playoffs. Just love them. That passion, the intensity, the emotion. Every goal feels different. Every rush is five times as intense. The deeper you get into a playoff round the more you feel like you're going to have a heart attack every time the puck goes anywhere near the net. I don't think any other sport in the world can replicate playoff hockey.
Tonight the Vernon Vipers and Trail Smoke Eaters played a game that was typical of their regular season series. First of all, it was very close. For the sixth time in seven games this year the two teams finished the game one goal apart. The shots were similar to most games we've seen between the two teams as well. Once again Trail was outshot by a substantial margin. Tonight it was 40-22. Once again, Grant Rollheiser was strong in the Smokies net.
However, I think it's important to talk about what kind of shots we're talking about. In the first period especially, Vernon threw a lot of pucks on net without regard to where they were shooting from. The majority came from the point, and almost all were from the perimeter. That's not to say it's ever a bad choice to shoot, but Rollheiser handles those kinds of shots very well. For one he likes to get a lot of work. He also plays his angles well so those kinds of shots aren't nearly as dangerous against him even with tips. Lately his rebound control has also been outstanding. Every time they fired those long shots in, Rollheiser either held on or grabbed the short rebound with his glove immediately.
Mark Ferner told me part of their strategy was to fire a lot of pucks on net and try to get some traffic. Vernon has some big bodies and you could certainly tell that was part of their game plan. However, that act itself I don't think is going to get many through Rollheiser. Plus the Smokies D did a pretty good job of making sure Rollheiser could see those shots.
Where Ferner's plan to get traffic in front had success was in how it caused the Smokies to take some penalties. Specifically, their traffic on the power play twice caused Trail to get themselves into further penalty trouble. You can't get into a 5 on 3 situation against Vernon. That just gives them way too much room to operate. Their PP is actually pretty average 5 on 4, but 5 on 3 they're going to find something. If the attempt at creating traffic in front of Rollheiser can cause Trail to trip, hook, slash or cross check guys in front of the goal we could see that strategy burn the Smokies again.
It was also similar because the Smokies responded from early deficits by continuing to hang in there with the Vipers. They went down 2-0 and immediately made it 2-1. They got down 3-1 and immediately made it 3-2. That was also a hallmark of the games they played this season against Vernon. Why does that happen?
I think the Smokies have been playing a conservative game against the Vipers all year. They let Vernon's skill guys (those top two lines, top line especially) control the puck and take their outside shots. They don't take big risks and try not to make big mistakes, because they know that one blown play will turn into a goal in no time. They also know Grant Rollheiser is going to handle those outside shots as long as he can see them.
It's a strategy that has kept Vernon's usually high goal totals down against Trail. It's a tactic that has kept the games between Trail and Vernon close.
However, it seems like they wait and wait and wait until they get into a hole to start responding with pressure of their own. Once Trail went down 2-0 they dominated the play for the rest of the second period. When they really got the chip and chase game going, they were beating the Vipers to every puck. They used their speed on the big Vernon D, and they were creating some good chances and odd man rushes.
This is not to suggest that they have to open the game up. I think it's fair to say that the Vipers have more pure skill on their top unit so that would be dangerous. We saw what ca happen in that 7-2 game when things got a too loose. However, I do think there needs to be more urgency in Trail's attack early. You can't get 5 shots in the first period and expect to have a lead. It's OK to give them 16 if those shots are mostly easy stops, but you have to respond in kind. It seems like in most games with Vernon this year the Smokies aren't responding that way until they get into that hole. Three times that got them to overtime, but if they had that urgency earlier maybe it never would've got to that point.
The other problem with giving up so much puck control is that it does cause you to take penalties. There were two distinct periods midway through the second and third periods where the Smokies couldn't clear their zone. They hardly touched the puck. The Vipers didn't get a lot of great chances during those long stretches, but that puck control tired out the Smoke Eater players on the ice and a couple of times turned into penalty situations. In the third period fatigue from killing all two minutes of a Casey Shade penalty in the Trail zone caused a break down that forced Shade to take another penalty on a wide open Bishop right after Shade got out of the box. That Shade penalty turned into a 5 on 3 when Koopman went off for tripping (still on that extended period of close to 6 minutes without a clear) and that 5 on 3 turned into a 3-1 lead that was too much to come back from.
So that's why they lost, but why can they win? The Vipers do have some guys who can get frustrated and can take some bad penalties. Whenever Trail would get extended control in the Vipers zone they would end up on the PP. The Smokies have to take advantage of those chances, but that's been an issue all year.
Their speed can give some of the bigger, slower Viper players fits. When someone like Aiken gets going through the neutral zone, there are some defenders on Vernon who can't handle him. He can get to the outside and around them pretty easily. Were he to cut in on a couple of those rushes I imagine he'll get hooked or hauled down. Limbert was using his speed several times and got around the Viper D before driving the goal. The smaller, faster guys on Trail can really get going through the neutral zone if they can break out of their zone properly. They can also win a lot of races to the pucks on dump ins. Once Trail started getting the puck in deep, they were getting to most of those pucks first or at the same time as Vernon's defenders.
Trail also made the game tough on some of the smaller, skill guys on Vernon. Bishop had a goal and an assist on the night, but both came on the power play. One on a 5 on 3 goal that just happened to be sitting there for him after going off a leg in front. Even strength that line created very few dangerous scoring chances. The Smokies did a good job playing Team D once that line got the puck. I can't count how many times Bishop had a shot or pass blocked and deflected today. I also can't count how many times one of the Jones twins was knocked down or thrown hard into the boards. Those guys are very effective in controlling the puck, but knock them down hard and they can get frustrated. One example was when Kellen tripped Herold up for a penalty after Herold had knocked him down. That doesn't mean take a run at them, because all three guys will just step around you... which I saw a couple of times tonight. However, if you can force them into the corner, take away their space, and then finish the play with a hard shoulder into the boards you'll get under their skin and take away the room to be creative. Most of the game the Smokies were doing that effectively.
The extra size and strength for Vernon wasn't a factor tonight at all. If anything I would say the Smokies played a more physical game. They hit more, they knocked more guys down, and they were grittier. The size helped some in controlling the puck in Trail's zone. At least it did for a guy like Bellar who was very hard to move. Vernon had far more puck control and were more composed than in other games I'd seen them play. Again it was very surprising to me to see the Smokies take 8 minor penalties to only 5 by the Vipers. Given the penalty totals of each team this year it's not likely to continue that way. Vernon was shorthanded 414 times this year compared to only 312 for Trail. The Smokies took the fewest penalties in the league while the Vipers took the second most. So Game 1's trend probably won't last.
Finally, I thought the goaltending was a bit of a wash today. Rollheiser faced more shots and didn't look shaky on any of them but the first goal. He gets a pass for one that maybe he should've had. No goalie is going to go 2 full months without one soft-ish goal. Other than that he was money. However, Gore was forced to make a couple of spectacular saves at the end of the first period that were game changers. His stops on Limbert's 2 on 1 chance and Corcoran's all alone in the slot were massive. If Trail had escaped being outshot 16-5 in the first period with a 1-0 lead, that really could've changed the dynamic of the game. As a result, Gore's performance was a key tonight. However, I think the Smokies have a distinct advantage in goal for the series as a whole. Rollheiser is steadier, gives up fewer rebounds and covers the net a lot better than Gore does.
The Smoke Eaters MUST shoot the puck more to take advantage of this. Gore's obviously not an inadequate goalie, but if both teams took 40 shots I'm confident in saying I think he'd let in more than Rollheiser would. The save percentage indicates as much, and that's with Rollheiser likely facing more quality chances in the shots he saw. However, if Vernon outshoots Trail 40-22, all bets are off. They're not likely to win games when they get nearly doubled on the shot clock. That's the reality. They're also not likely to equal Vernon's puck control, but maybe they have to let a few more of those pucks go from further out when they're on the rush. Instead of taking a puck down the boards and deep into the Vernon zone, fire one from the top of the circle and look for a rebound off the pads. Make Gore work for it more than he had to in Game 1.
I think this game showed again that the Smoke Eaters can hang with the Vipers. Each team has their strengths and their weaknesses. Trail did a lot of things right tonight. Keep forcing the Vipers to the outside where Rollheiser can handle those shots. Keep taking away any room the Bishop line has at even strength. Keep taking the body as much as you can on both big and small players.
But Trail has to utilize their edge in speed more than they did. They have to work a faster transition game and go on the attack more than they did. They have to fire more pucks at Gore and drive the net looking for rebounds. Aiken's goal was simple. He took a shot, a bouncing puck deflected back to him and he just fired again. His shot was a beauty, but that's what it takes. Corcoran's goal was a smart play on a great feed by Koopman, but it also worked because the Smokies went to the net and created some havoc in front of Gore. That made it easier for Corcoran to slip in the back door and find an opening. They can do it, but I think they have to go on the attack earlier and more often than they did.
There seemed to be some opportunities to create neutral zone turnovers. The Vipers made a lot of long passes out of their own zone to the red line and the Trail blue line. Create some turnovers on those plays and suddenly you're generating odd man rushes with that speed advantage.
This was a long drawn out way of me saying I think the Smokies can take Vernon. That doesn't mean they will, but it does mean I think they can. There are some definite advantages for them in the match up if they play their game. Trail has a lot of players built for a tight checking playoff environment. Force them into that type of game and the Smokies can come out with 2-1 and 3-2 wins.
Yes, a lot of the things I saw in tonight's games were things I've seen in other games the two teams have played. However, this team is a lot more confident than that team was. This team is a lot more together than that team was. They can respond. I could tell on the bus that the Smokies believe they can beat Vernon and feel like they let this game slip away. That's the nice thing about this loss. They were beat, but not in a way that makes them feel overwhelmed or outmatched.
Vernon is expected to win both at home. Anything less for them is a disappointment. However, I don't think the Vipers are going home tonight feeling like they have a good handle on the Smokies. I bet some of them are wondering what would've happened if they didn't get that 5 on 3 chance. What if the linesman caught Kellen Jones (as some have suggested... would have to see the tape to be sure) for being a step offside on Vernon's second goal? What would've happened if that first goal didn't somehow handcuff Rollheiser. What if Gore didn't make that incredible save on Limbert late in the first period. Hockey can be a "what if" game, but there sure were a lot of them today. One of those things doesn't happen and suddenly we're having a very different conversation.
The records may indicate that Vernon is a substantially better team... that they are on another level. The game doesn't. But that series round up still says 1-0 Vipers, and now it's up the the Smoke Eaters to adjust and respond. Earn that split and anything can happen.
Game 2 is Saturday night at 6:45pm on Mountain FM.
...The Smokies handed out their year end awards on Wednesday night. That should get a whole blog to itself but I have not had the chance to do one. Limbert and Rollheiser shared the MVP award. Limbert was top scorer. Rollheiser rookie of the year. Patrick Martin most improved. Ryan Bulach was the most dedicated. Brad Davis won most inpirational. I apparently won an award for ability to sleep in an odd position on the bus. Seriously it was great to see the Smokies recognize all the volunteers that make this team possible. Without them there would be no Smokies.
...The higher ranked team won every game on the first night of BCHL playoff action. Salmon Arm beat Prince George, Surrey beat Powell River and Burnaby beat Victoria. I guess all these teams are ranked where they are for a reason, eh? Come on underdogs, lets see some upsets!
...Kegan Little played his second game of the year as an AP for the Smokies. The Castlegar Rebel looked solid and created a good chance on Gore in the first. He had one of the few chances Trail had in that period. Didn't see a lot of ice during extended periods of penalty trouble, but played well when he had the chance.
Little and the Rebels were swept by Beaver Valley 3-0 in the first round of the KIJHL playoffs. Two of those games went to overtime. While there are a few former Nitehawks on the Smokies who certainly cheered their old team on, it would probably have been better for the Smoke Eaters if Castlegar won. They had a lot more potential AP players on the Nitehawks. But I suspect they'll continue to cheer on Justin Brown, Layne Stopanski, Grahame Proulx and the gang as they battle first place Nelson in the Neil Murdoch West Division finals. Game 1 of that series is Saturday night in Nelson. Take your walkman to the game! Watch good hockey live while listening to your Smokies on the radio.
...Kevin Koopman drove Zurevinski hard into the boards and actually caused a pane of glass to shatter midway through the second period. Some Vipers guys said the sticks probably had something to do with the glass busting, but hey that's something Koopman can tell his grandchildren someday. "When I was a young man I hit someone so hard it broke the rink! We used to have to ride something called a bus to hockey games back then..."
...I thought Patrick Raley played a very good game against his old team in Game 1. He seemed to have a step on a couple of their skill guys. Anticipated the play well in his own zone. Perhaps hsi shoulders were feeling lighter out there after he dumped some unwanted baggage in Vernon! That truck sure made for an interesting Thursday.
...Did you guys like the pre-produced intro we aired before the start of the pre-game show today? I thought it was a nice little addition to the broadcast. But I like cheezy hype packages. Made me feel like a low rent Bob Costas for a few minutes there.
...Finally, we changed up the way my broadcast was sent to the fan zone today. Hope out of town fans picked it up fine and it sounded OK. Let me know if you had any problems. Hopefully it works fine tomorrow too. If you ever have issues though send an e-mail to email@example.com
The mood is still good on this team right now, Smokies fans. It's a loss, but it's no dagger in the heart. They're going to go hard for that split, and I think they've got a pretty good shot at getting it. You have to love playoff hockey. All the coaches and players are going through today's game in their heads as we speak. Adjustments will be made. Plans will change. The intensity level is only going to get higher.
You have to love it.
See you all Monday night!
(Photo by Randy Emery from the first game of the season. Wish he or Scotty were here to do some colour!)