They may have been wearing their luck of the Irish uniforms, but the Prince Albert Raiders’ 4-3 overtime win against the Calgary Hitmen had little to do with chance, according to head coach Marc Habscheid.
“Confidence is a great thing. If you have it, you’re a world-beater, and if you don’t, it’s tough finding wins. Right now the guys have confidence,” he said of his team’s ninth consecutive win.
The Western Hockey League club was playing its third game in four nights, the most recent of which was a high-tempo, emotional win against Moose Jaw on Friday.
Saturday, the opening 35 minutes of play looked to be a grind for P.A. “We knew Calgary was playing good, and we talked to the guys about it. You could just feel it for the first period for sure and most of the second; there was just no energy with our group or even in the crowd,” Habscheid said.
After 40 minutes, the Hitmen were up 2-1 on goals from Mark Kastelic and Carson Focht. Jordy Stallard put the Raiders on the score sheet early in the second frame.
The Raiders found their legs and their edge to start the third period.
Defenceman Vojtech Budik blasted a one-timer slap shot past Calgary goalie Matthew Armitage while on the power play to tie the score 2-2 at 5:51 of the frame.
Budik’s goal looked to spark the normally stoic Raiders captain, Curtis Miske, who let out a resounding cheer and emphatic celebration after scoring the go-ahead goal less than a minute later.
That boosted the crowd’s energy, too; it started cheering, hollering and urging the Raiders to keep going. The P.A. club responded by firing 26 total shots on Armitage in the third period alone.
The rookie goalie, starting his 17th game of the year, stood on his head: Aside from those two P.A. goals, Armitage stopped all the shots he faced in the period, allowing his side to tie the game at 3-3 and force overtime; Kastelic tied the game with his second score.
It took more than four minutes of extra play and several key saves from Raiders goalie Ian Scott, but P.A. emerged victorious, thanks to a driving Brayden Pachal, after he took a pass from Stallard in Calgary’s zone.
Pachal skated in to Armitage on his right side towards the outer edge of the faceoff circle. After cutting toward the goalie’s crease, Pachal forced the Hitmen netminder down while in close and slipped the puck under him for the game-winner.
After the game, the Raiders alternate captain talked about his team’s changed approach to games and facing opponents.
“It’s definitely a culture change in the room. We decided that it wasn’t working what we were doing; we were sitting back. So now our game plan is to go in there when we have the lead and keep going, just keep sticking to our game plan instead of sitting back,” Pachal said.
Stallard echoed those comments. He underscored that the Saturday win resembles the type of games his team will need to win – and prepare for – come playoffs.
“If we want to go far in playoffs, we’re gonna have to learn to win games like that,” he said. “All four lines were going, Scotty was going; everyone was going in the third period and that’s what we needed.”
The game was also a milestone for Stallard – his goal and two assists put him over the 200-point plateau, landing him at 201 points over four years in the WHL.
The Raiders (32-25-9-2) enter the home stretch of the regular season with four games remaining before the playoffs start; three of those are on the road and one is at home, all against divisional opponents – Moose Jaw, Regina and Saskatoon twice.
On the topic of confidence and moving forward, Habscheid also talked about the imperative of balance.
“If you become over-confident, then you start cheating on your game, and your game becomes fractured; eventually bad things will happen.
“It’s a balance: You want to keep your guys centred, but you want them to have confidence. And I think our group does a good job of that.”
The P.A. club sits in fifth place in the league’s East Division, seven points up on sixth-place Saskatoon and four points back for fourth-place Brandon. Prince Albert holds the Eastern Conference’s final wildcard playoff spot; Brandon holds the other.
All three teams have four regular season games remaining. If Saskatoon loses one more game in regulation time, it will be out of the playoffs, leaving Brandon and Prince Albert to jockey for a first and second wildcard playoff spot.
The Raiders next play back-to-back games on the road in Moose Jaw (Tuesday) and Regina (Wednesday). Their last regular season home is their next one at the Art Hauser Centre – Friday night at 7 p.m. against the Blades.
The longest winning streak in Raiders history is 15 games, set during the 1985-86 season.