The Prince Albert Raiders are experiencing a role reversal heading into the 2019 Western Hockey League playoffs.
A year after they nabbed the final seed in the Eastern Conference and pushed the top-ranked Moose Jaw Warriors to seven games, the Raiders enter the post-season as the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy holders as the best team in the regular season and have already experienced strong efforts from their opponents over the second half of the campaign.
“We had a pretty good idea after Christmas that would be finishing near the top of the standings points wise, so to have everyone gunning to beat us is something that helped us quite a bit,” Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid said.
“We’ve had a few games where there have been some lulls, which is normal, but the guys have played well for the most part and we’ve navigated through guys being away at the World Juniors or being sidelined due to injuries.”
Awaiting them in the first round, which gets underway Friday at the Art Hauser Center at 7 p.m., is a Red Deer Rebels side that gave the Raiders everything they could handle in the regular season.
“We know that we can play with them but it comes down to us being better at the little things,” Rebels forward and captain Reese Johnson told Byron Hackett of the Red Deer Advocate.
“The Raiders have all four lines going for them and they are structured well to play a good team game. That doesn’t mean that we can’t do the same thing, but we need to be playing at our best against them.”
Although the Rebels will enter the playoffs having lost their last four games and they lost the season series by a 3-1 margin, all of their matchups with the Raiders were decided by a single goal.
“Red Deer is a hard working team and they have some good systems,” Raiders forward Parker Kelly said.
“It’s a good test for us and we’re excited to play them, especially as we started to get a bit of a rivalry going with how close our season series was.”
Despite the fact that the Raiders already knew that they would enter the playoffs as the top seed in the East Division for quite some time, the team has spent the last 10 games of the regular season getting into the right mindset ahead of the post-season.
“We’ve had a list of 10 points in our locker room that we’ve been working on here lately and we’ve done a good job of focusing on those things,” Kelly said.
“A lot of it has to do with focusing on the finer details of the game and what we need to do going into the playoffs. There’s obviously some pressure with comes with being the top seed, but we’re all looking forward to the challenge and we’re excited for what is hopefully a long journey.”
On the health side of things, Dante Hannoun and Justin Nachbaur both missed the final games of the regular season due to injuries, but the Raiders forwards are nearing a return to action according to Habscheid.
Meanwhile, the Rebels will be without their top blueliner and Washington Capitals prospect Alexander Alexeyev for the series, as he’s been sidelined with a knee injury since a collision with the Brandon Wheat Kings’ Ben McCartney on March 9.
“Whenever you lose a guy that plays 30 minutes a night, it certainly changes things a bit no matter what level of hockey you are playing,” Rebels general manager and head coach Brent Sutter told Byron Hackett of the Red Deer Advocate.
“With that being said, it does give other guys the chance to rise up and take advantage of their opportunity. It’s not just the defence though that needs to step up. The whole team has to be good come playoff time.”
The two sides will play again Saturday at the Art Hauser Centre, with the next two games taking place in Red Deer on Tuesday and Wednesday.
If needed, a fifth game would be held in Prince Albert next Friday and game six would take place at the Westerner Park Centrium on Sunday, March 31.
A seventh and deciding contest, if required, is slated for Tuesday, April 2 at the Art Hauser Centre.
Each matchup will start at 7 p.m., except for Game 6 in Red Deer, which would get underway at 2 p.m.