The chance to play for a Western Hockey League championship has been a long time coming for Prince Albert Raiders forward Sean Montgomery and Vancouver Giants defenceman Dallas Hines.
For Montgomery, who has suited up in 345 regular season affairs over the last five years to become the Raiders all times games played record holder, his final campaign as seen him be a part of the Raiders’ longest playoff run since they made it to the Eastern Conference final in 2005.
“The ride has been even more fun than I imagined it would be,” Montgomery said.
“We haven’t been past the first round since I started playing here. I’ve had a blast and we’re hoping to keep it going.”
As for Hines, who has played in 248 regular season games, this year marks his first ever post-season experience in the WHL.
He missed out on the playoffs during three seasons with the Kootenay Ice and finally got the chance to play for a league title after being traded to the Giants at this year’s trade deadline.
“It’s been a long wait but it’s obviously been worth it,” Hines said. “I don’t think it’s possible to get more excited.
“Everyone on the team’s looking forward to this series. We’ve had a good week of practice so far and we hope things carry over into the games themselves.”
When the two sides open up their best-of-seven affair for the Ed Chynoweth Cup Friday at the Art Hauser Centre, it will mark just the second time that they have played each other all season.
Their only other meeting came at the Langley Events Centre on Jan. 24, when the Giants picked up a 3-1 win over the Raiders in a game that aired nationally on Sportsnet.
“You can look at that game a little bit and see what you did right and see what you could have done differently,” Montgomery said. “However, that game was quite a lot time ago now and each team might have changed their systems a bit since then.”
“It’s definitely different when you are going up against a team that you haven’t faced as often as the ones you play in your conference,” Hines added. “The video helps though and it gives you a good idea of what to expect.”
Although the Raiders and the Giants entered the playoffs as the top teams in their respective conferences, they both dealt with some challenges along the way.
Following a sweep of the Red Deer Rebels, the Raiders had six game battles with the Saskatoon Blades and the Edmonton Oil Kings on their way to winning the Eastern Conference title.
“I think the adversity that we faced in those series, especially when we went down 2-1 against Edmonton, are things that will help us out a lot,” Raiders overage forward Dante Hannoun said. “We stepped up our game to beat the Oil Kings, and that’s huge for us as we get ready to face Vancouver.”
The Giants toughest test was a six-game affair with the Seattle Thunderbirds in the opening round, as they would then go on to sweep the Victoria Royals and earn a five-game series triumph over the Spokane Chiefs to capture the Western Conference crown.
“We learned a lot of lessons against Seattle,” Giants forward and captain Jared Dmytriw said. “We had the lead a couple of times and ended up losing those games because we didn’t finish the job, which was a really important building block for us with the number of overtime games that we’ve had so far it the post-season.”
Draft eligible blueliner Bowen Byram leads all skaters so far in the playoffs with 18 points, while overage forward Davis Koch is second on the Giants in points with 17.
The team split netminding duties between Arizona Coyotes draft pick David Tendeck and Trent Miner in the first two rounds before handing the reigns over to Tendeck during the Western Conference final.
“It doesn’t matter where you are in the lineup, you have a huge role on the team,” Giants forward Jadon Joseph said. “You don’t have to rely on just one line to get things done.”
The top of the Raiders scoring chart is also well balanced.
Noah Gregor and Brett Leason both have 16 points ahead of the league final, while Aliaksei Protas and Hannoun have 15 points each.
“That depth is what the playoffs are all about,” Raiders defenceman and captain Brayden Pachal said. “You see it in the NHL and you see it here in the WHL. It’s guys that you don’t normally expect that are stepping up to make the big plays.“
Ian Scott has played in every minute for the Raiders in the playoffs and has the league’s best goals against average (1.85) and save percentage (.930), in addition to posting the most shutouts with three.
Besides earning a ticket to the Memorial Cup later this month in Halifax, each side is looking to win their second title in team history.
The Giants captured their only Ed Chynoweth Cup in 2006 over the Moose Jaw Warriors and would go on to win the Memorial Cup on home ice the following year, but that came after they lost to the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL final.
“Our team had struggled in recent years, but that taste of getting to the playoffs last year and losing to Victoria really motivated us through the summer,” Dmytriw said.
“The energy level has been building up in Langley in each game, especially in the conference final against Spokane,” Hines added. “Hopefully the excitement with our fans just keeps rising out there.”
As for the Raiders, this marks just their second trip to the league final, as they beat the Kamloops Blazers in 1985 on their way to the Memorial Cup.
“There’s a ton of excitement here in Prince Albert and it’s been a really cool experience for us to see just how much our fans are getting into it,” Pachal said.
“It’s the WHL final and the winner is going to the Memorial Cup in Halifax. I’m not sure what to say if you can’t get up for this one.”
After the first two games of the series, which will take place at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre on Friday and Saturday, both teams will fly out to British Columbia.
Games three and four will be held at the Langley Events Centre at 8 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a fifth game taking place there at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, May 10 if required.
If needed, the sixth and seventh games would be held in Prince Albert on Sunday, May 12 and Monday, May 13 at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. respectively.