Raiders back in playoff contention

Prince Albert Raiders forward Parker Kelly (27) battles Brandon Wheat Kings forward Ben McCartney for the puck during the first period of the teams' Feb. 27, 2018 WHL game from P.A. -- Evan Radford/Daily Herald

WHL club knocks off Brandon 6-2; tied for wildcard playoff spot

After a dominant 6-2 win over the Brandon Wheat Kings Tuesday night, the Prince Albert Raiders are now back in playoff contention in the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference.

The game was the Raiders’ fourth consecutive win, and it ties the team with Saskatoon for the conference’s final playoff spot, a wildcard spot.

The win also represented a bit of redemption for the Raiders, who were stonewalled by Wheat Kings goalie Logan Thompson 10 days ago in Brandon: The netminder turned aside 39 of 42 Raiders shots en route to a 4-3 Brandon win. After that game, Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid emphasized how frustrated he and the team were with the loss.

On Tuesday at the Art Hauser Centre, the Raiders matched that shot count and found considerably more success.

In his mind, Habscheid said there wasn’t much difference between the two games. “Their goalie was still as good; we found a few more ways to score some goals and our goaltending was better.

“We made good shots, and he was just as outstanding. And people saw tonight, if he wouldn’t have had his A-game, it wouldn’t have been a lot worse.”

It was the Wheat Kings who got on the score sheet first. After a fast, quick-paced start to the first period, forward Ty Lewis put the Wheaties up 1-0 at 14:39 on a short-range wrist shot on goalie Ian Scott.

When the Raiders haven’t scored first this season, they’ve won just eight games and lost 17.

They slowed that trend on Tuesday.

Less than two minutes after Lewis’ score, Raiders alternate captain Parker Kelly carried the puck in on Thompson with linemate Kody McDonald to the goalie’s wide left side. Kelly held the puck long enough to make Thompson and the Wheat Kings defenceman commit to him; he made a precise pass to McDonald, who tapped in the puck past a sprawling Thompson.

That score seemed to light a fire for the Raiders. They responded with three more goals over the next 25 minutes of play. Vojtech Budik, Cole Fonstad and Curtis Miske all found the back of the net against Thompson.

Those goals, plus another Ty Lewis score made it 4-2 for the Raiders after 40 minutes of play.

In the third period, Jordy Stallard and Max Martin put the icing on the cake for the P.A. club, rounding out the game’s scoring for a final 6-2 score.

For Stallard, the game and the goal were milestones for him.

The score was his 40th of the year, the first time the Brandon native reached that many goals in a season over the course of his four-year WHL stint. It’s also the last time he’ll play the Wheat Kings, his hometown team (depending on how playoffs shape up).

Brandon Wheat Kings goalie Logan Thompson, centre, keeps his eye on the puck during a scramble in front of his net while playing against the Prince Albert Raiders in WHL action from P.A. on Feb. 27, 2018. — Evan Radford/Daily Herald

“It’s pretty exciting. That being said, I’m pretty fortunate to be playing with some outstanding players that have helped me get to that point,” he said of the goal.

As for beating the Wheat Kings in P.A. in what might be his last game against them, he said that’s special, too.

“It’s always been kind of a rival with me beating the hometown (team). Anytime you can take a win away, it feels pretty good.”

The centreman underscored how his team’s success Tuesday was due to preparing for Thompson. “He’s a good goalie. We knew that coming in. We knew they like to play fast, and that we needed to get lots of pucks on net and lots of bodies to the net.”

Stallard said the win is an important step in the Raiders’ push to the 2017-18 postseason, but there’s still work to be done.

“It’s still anyone’s game. So we just have to take it day-by-day, practice-by-practice and game-by-game, and I think we’ll be fine.”

The Raiders (27-25-9-2) are off from play on Wednesday and Thursday. They next play on Friday in Swift Current against the Broncos (45-14-4-1). Game time is 7 p.m.

The Raiders are now tied with the Saskatoon Blades (31-29-2-1) for fifth spot in the WHL’s East Division. Each team has the same amount of points (65) and the same winning percentage (0.516).

They next play at home on Saturday, March 3 against the Lethbridge Hurricanes at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre.

NOTES: Tuesday’s game also marked a milestone for Miske: It was the Raiders captain’s 250th WHL game. This season has been a career one for him. He has notched career-bests in points (53), goals scored (22) and assists (31).