It’s not the prettiest way to head into the Christmas break, but the Prince Albert Raiders aren’t complaining.
The Raiders overcame absences from a number of major contributors, along with a 4-2 deficit, to win a wild 7-5 game over the Swift Current Broncos at the Art Hauser Centre. It was Prince Albert’s second win in a row over the Broncos, and sent the club into the holidays with a CHL best 31-2-1 record.
“We might as well talk about it. It’s 31-2-1. It’s crazy,” Raiders coach Marc Habscheid said after Saturday’s game. “It’s something that we never would have thought of, halfway through the season, to have that record.”
“These past two days have probably not been the way we want the game to go, but it’s probably entertaining for the fans,” added Raider forward Noah Gregor, whose 19th goal of the year proved to be the game winner. “At the end of the day, we got two big wins and that’s a good way to go into the break.”
The Raiders entered the game without starting goalie Ian Scott and top scorer Brett Leason who are both attending the Hockey Canada World Juniors training camp in Victoria. Import forward Aliaksei Protas and defenceman Sergei Sapego were also away, having not yet returned from representing Belarus at the Division I World Junior Tournament in Germany, and captain Brayden Pachal was out of the lineup due to suspension.
A standing-room only crowd of 2,809 was on hand for the team’s annual Teddy Bear Toss and they didn’t have to wait long to start the procedings. Sean Montgomery opened the scoring at 4:48, sending the crowd into frenzy and kicking off a steady stream of airborne teddy bears that quickly covered both ends of the ice.
Nine shots and one goal. Montgomery from Kelly. Here come the teddy bears… pic.twitter.com/NGLtUCI4e7
— Jason Kerr (@kerr_jas) December 16, 2018
After volunteers and Raider players helped clear the ice, the newest Swift Current Bronco wasted little time getting that goal back. Prince Albert Minto Dawson Springer, who made his WHL debut for the Broncos on Saturday, fired home a rebound at 13:46 for his first WHL goal.
Justin Nachbaur briefly restored the Prince Albert lead with a power play goal at 15:35, but Swift Current tied it up again when Ethan O’Rourke converted on a two-on-one with just over two minutes to play.
Despite all the goal scoring, the real story was Swift Current netminder Joel Hofer. Hofer turned away 19 shots in the opening period, including a breakaway stop and a sprawling glove save, both on Montgomery.
Although both teams stayed away from the fights that constantly broke out during Friday’s contest in Swift Current, the heavy hitting continued. The biggest came courtesy of Raider rookie Ozzy Wiesblatt, who flattened Bronco defenceman Connor Horning along the boards just inside the blue line.
Despite hemming the Broncos in their own end of the ice for much of the second period, the Raiders found themselves down 4-2 after being victimized by a pair of bad bounces. Joona Kiviniemi put the visitors up by one after depositing a big rebound during a goalmouth scramble just two minutes into the period. The Broncos added another roughly four minutes later when the puck deflected off Raider defenceman Jeremy Masella and right to a wide-open Matthew Culling. The Bronco rookie wasted no time making it 4-2, chasing Raiders starting goaltender Donavan Buskey from the net in the process.
Habscheid had plenty of sympathy for Buskey in his post-game comments, but also had no regrets about pulling him from the contest.
“Sometimes it’s just a momentum change,” the Raider coach explained. “Buskey was just fighting it tonight. It just wasn’t his night. We didn’t have much choice. We had to change.”
Rookie backup Brett Balas came in and faced only one shot the rest of the period as the Raider offensive poured on the pressure.
They were rewarded at 8:22 when Nachbaur worked a nice give-and-go with Carson Miller in front of the net to score his second of the game. Wiesblatt added another at 12:38 on the power play with a quick wrist shot that beat Hofer low to the stick side.
Gregor then took over, scoring two goals in a three minutes span to give Prince Albert a 6-4 lead heading into the third period. The first was a one-handed deflection off a Cole Fonstad saucer pass, while the second came courtesy of a wraparound.
“We knew that we could play better,” Gregor said when asked about the team’s mindset after going down 4-2. “You don’t want to be down going into the third, so we knew that we had to come with a strong push going into the end of that second period, and we did a great job of that.”
“He’s been real good,” Habscheid added. “He’s a guy who can skate forever, so you’re able to double him up in a lot of situations and he doesn’t tire. He’s just crafty with the puck and he helps other guys out on different lines.”
After going all game without taking a penalty, the Raiders took two in quick succession to open the final frame. Alec Zawatsky took advantage of the 5-on-3 power play, pulling the Broncos within one by squeezing a shot past Balas on the short side. However, that was as close as the visitors got.
Parker Kelly scored on a wraparound at 12:02 to restore the two-goal lead and cap off another high-scoring affair.
In total, the Raiders fired 56 shots at the Swift Current goal. Hofer played all 60 minutes in the net, finishing with 49 saves. Buskey stopped six of 10 shots for the Raiders, while Balas made seven saves on eight chances.
With the Raiders heading home for Christmas, Habscheid said he hopes they’ll take time to enjoy their record so far, while reminding themselves they still have a long way to go.
“The most fun part of every hockey season is the second half,” he said. “They should be proud of (the first). Go home and enjoy it. Forget about the game and enjoy their record so far, but we haven’t won anything yet and we still have a lot of things we want to accomplish. The next three, four or five months should be real interesting.”
@kerr_jas • firstname.lastname@example.org