Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Road Trip Three Stars

(Smiley against Quesnel - Photo Randy Emery)

The flu bug that hit some of the Smoke Eaters seems to have hit the broadcaster as well. I'm not nearly in as good a shape as the guys are too so I probably can't fight it off quite as well! With all the H1N1 concern Mountain FM has kept me on the bench for a couple of days to make sure I don't spread this thing around the office. That's why there was a "best of" Overtime on tonight in case you noticed.

I do want to quickly address the road trip. It couldn't have got off to a more frustrating start. Everyone was really let down by the compete level from the club in the first period against Williams Lake. The Smokies then played 8 consecutive solid periods on the way to picking up 4 out of a possible 6 points. That tripled Trail's road win total and has to be considered a big success.

What happened? In talking to several of the players and coaches it seems a sit down meeting on Friday morning gave the guys some perspective. Smokies trainer Steve Mears spent his career in the military and knows all about what it takes to be part of a unit. When you have someone else's life in your hands you can't afford to play by your own rules. I don't know what went into the meeting, but apparently a big part of it was getting some of that military perspective and really learning to trust your teammates. Every guy I interviewed (hope to have those for you in the next day or so depending on how I improve) mentioned that they felt like the team really came together after that meeting and the final two games of the trip.

There is a lot of talent on this Smoke Eaters roster. So much so that I was stunned by the slow start. I knew it would be challenging to play 20 of their first 29 on the road. I knew it would be challenging to break in so many new defencemen. However, I think we all knew this roster was better than their results so far. Perhaps they now realize more than ever that each individual player can't just get it done with their own talent. Each guy has to buy in to the team and become part of that one unit for this young club to have the kind of success that all Smokies fans are hoping for. I think we've seen a giant step forward in that direction.

So that being said it is difficult to single out anyone as the "stars" of the road trip, but it's something I like to do after most long trips. I think the biggest thing about their two wins was that buy in to the team concept and trust in one another. However, there were certainly some individuals who stepped up in a big way.

1. Darnell Dyck: Dyck was the first star against Prince George and the second star against Quesnel. That makes him the natural selection. Here is a guy who came to Trail with something to prove. He told me after the trade that brought him here for goaltender Paul Barclay that he wanted to prove he could be a "top 6" forward at this level. Dyck got off to a little bit of a slow start. However, as some key guys have gone down to injures Darnell has leaped at the opportunity to get more ice time. Game by game he has proved himself to Coach Ingram and earned bigger and bigger opportunities. Now Dyck is taking shifts on the power play, penalty kill and on one of the top lines. How did he respond? By scoring the winning goal on Saturday (as called by assistant coach Brian Youngson) and picking up 5 total points in the two Trail victories. Darnell went from a single point in September to 11 in October. That's as many points as he had all of last season. Dyck has arrived.

2. Kiefer Smiley/Garrett Beckwith: What a cop out, eh? Well it's hard to separate them after they both played such big parts in the Trail wins. After the Smokies got down 3-2 in Prince George, Beckwith stopped 22 straight shots to close the door and give them a chance for a come back. In Quesnel, Smiley made several key saves in the first half setting the table for the blow out victory. I'm sure he took a lot of pride in stopping 35 shots against his former team. That is the kind of goaltending Trail needs to win. There are no successful teams in the BCHL with average goaltending. Trail's four recent wins all came with strong performances by one of Beckwith and Smiley. That's what has to happen for the Smokies to continue their recent success with games coming up against Salmon Arm and Vernon.

3. Jesse Niemi: I don't know if Niemi was the third best Smoke Eater on the road trip. He probably wasn't as we didn't really see him log a ton of ice time or play on special teams. However, you have to appreciate how well he performed under the circumstances. Here we have a 20 year old from the KIJHL's Fernie Ghostriders who has never played a regular season BCHL game. He took two years off of hockey before returning to give it another shot late last season. Now he finds himself as a rare over age AP on a 12 hour road trip with a bunch of strangers. So what did Niemi do? He went out and scored 5 points in 3 games. Only Dyck could match that among the Smokies regulars over the same span. Right now he is only officially credited with 3 of those points, but upon further review he'll have 2 more assists added to his total from the Quesnel game. Niemi also did all of that after sustaining an upper body injury in the game against Prince George. I know they are proud of him over at the Ghostriders blog. He told me in an interview that he didn't want to regret not giving the BCHL a shot even if there were long odds of him making much of an impact. The Salmon Arm native can more than hold his head high after that weekend.


...Trail isn't alone in having lost to Williams Lake. The first year Timberwolves have a 3-1-1-0 record in their last five games. Goaltender Sean Donnelly is certainly a big part of their recent success. However, this is also what happens when a team full of rookies starts to believe they can play at this level. There is a big adjustment for any Junior B or Midget player as they make the leap to the BCHL. The Timberwolves are starting to make that adjustment and more importantly are starting to play like they believe they can beat anyone. With wins over Powell River, Trail, Quesnel and Prince George in October they have served notice that there will be no easy points in their barn anymore.

...Trail wasn't the only team to get some help from the KIJHL on the weekend. Goaltender Billy Faust went from Nelson to Penticton with Sean Bonar off at the World Junior A Challenge. Faust stopped 17 of 18 Merritt shots to get a win in his first BCHL start. They've also had 16 year old Castlegar Rebels defenceman Ryan Renz in their line-up. He like Smoke Eaters defenceman Eric Walker is from Castlegar. Not a bad duo of 16 year olds representing my current home.

...Meritt turned to Chase goaltender Riley Wall with injuries to their two regulars. Wall lost both games but kept his save percentage just a tad bellow 90% against Penticton and Surrey, two of the top ranked teams in Canada. Wall was an AP with Trail last season.

...Westside turned to Nelson Leafs forward Shawn Hochhausen and Spokane Braves forward Dylan Tappe to fill in for some of their missing players. Neither picked up a point in the home and home series with Salmon Arm, but I would expect them both to find their way into the league next season. I didn't know you could use 17 year old Americans as APs in the BCHL as I thought they had to be in their 18 year old season to play in Canada. That being said, Tappe is one of the best young forwards in the KIJHL. There will be a lot of eyes watching some of the high scoring players on Simon Wheeldon's Leafs and Mike Bay's Braves this season.

...Quesnel also had some KIJHL help in their line-up as Jesse Niemi's Fernie teammates Brendon and Bond Hawryluk played for the Millionaires. Brendon has a goal in 3 games while Bond is pointless in 4. As you can see very few players make the kind of impact that Niemi made as affiliates. Trail also used Leafs forward Gavin Currie earlier this season and he had an assist in 2 games.

...Quesnel made a deal after their 3 losses on the weekend sending defenceman James Bettauer to Burnaby for 20 year old forward Jon Puskar. Bettauer was with Chilliwack in the WHL last year and was part of Penticton's BCHL championship club as a 16 year old. While the trade takes 24 points off of the Burnaby roster, I suspect they are looking to shake things up and tighten things up in their own end after a very rough October. Puskar adds depth to a Quesnel forward group that was relying too heavily on two or three players. Should be a good deal for both teams. We still haven't seen any real blockbuster deals since the season got going. I expect those shoes will start to drop even before we get to the January trade deadline.

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