It’s been a frantic last few days for the Prince Albert Raiders since they captured their first Western Hockey League title since 1985 Monday night.
Following Dante Hannoun’s Game 7 overtime winning goal against the Vancouver Giants, the team held a brief practice Tuesday at the Art Hauser Centre before boarding a plan to Halifax Wednesday morning.
Upon arriving in Nova Scotia, the Raiders began their preparations for their opening game of the Memorial Cup, which will get underway at 5 p.m. Friday against the host Mooseheads.
“This is where we want to be,” Raiders netminder Ian Scott said during media availability following the team’s practice on Thursday at the Scotiabank Centre. “We already have one trophy and now we’re looking to bring another one back to Prince Albert.”
“As coach (Marc Habscheid) has told us already, the key for us to start on time,” Raiders blueliner and captain Brayden Pachal added. “You can’t ease yourself into this tournament, otherwise you are going to find yourself down 0-2 and having to win your last game just to make it to the playoffs.”
The Raiders received a great test ahead of their trip to Halifax, as the Western Conference champion Giants pushed them to the limit after falling behind 3-1 in the Ed Chynoweth Cup series.
“After that (8-2) blowout win we had in Game 3, they (the Giants) got even more determined,” Habscheid said. “They were probably the heaviest team that we’ve gone up against all year and you have to give them a lot of credit for how they played.”
“They made us earn this championship,” Raiders forward Brett Leason added. “The Giants are just like any of the teams that we’ll face out in Halifax. Everyone has skilled guys and we need to battle hard to reach that next stepping stone.”
The first matchup for the Raiders will be against a Mooseheads side that made their way to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League final, but lost to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in six games.
“It wasn’t easy, but we were able to have a good playoff run to get our guys ready for the Memorial Cup,” Mooseheads coach Eric Veilleux said during Wednesday’s coaches’ press conference.
“Once the playoffs started here, our fans have become crazier and louder. If you go anywhere around town, all of the talk is about the Mooseheads. Everyone has been anxious for this week to come.”
Although the game will start at 8 p.m. local time in Halifax, Habscheid doesn’t think that playing in the Atlantic Time Zone will be much of an issue.
“We’re used to starting games at 7 p.m. so it won’t be a huge of a stretch for us when it comes to preparing for puck drop,” Habscheid said.
“Obviously it’s a quick turnaround, but we’re excited to be here. Halifax is a great city and there are four great teams playing here. It’s pretty easy to get motivated when you’re at an event like this.”
The Raiders will have two days off before they prepare to face the Huskies on Monday night at 5 p.m.
The only team in the Canadian Hockey League to be ranked ahead of the Raiders at the end of the regular season, the Huskies are making their second trip to the tournament in the last four years, with their previous experience ending in an overtime loss in the 2016 championship game to the London Knights in Red Deer.
“I think the league final with Halifax really helped us to prepare for this week, especially with how we stepped up our game after they tied the series at two,” said Huskies head coach and general manager Mario Pouliot, who was the bench boss for last year’s Memorial Cup champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
“This is going to be a great competition, especially with four really good teams. We’re happy to be here.”
The Raiders’ final round-robin contest is set for 5 p.m. on Tuesday against the Ontario Hockey League champion Guelph Storm.
The Storm are coming off a wild run to their league title, as they erased a 3-0 deficit in the quarter-final round to beat the Knights, rallied from 3-1 down to knock off the Saginaw Spirit in the Western Conference final and rattled off four straight wins over an Ottawa 67’s side that went 14-0 to start the playoffs.
“We’re as fresh as we can be after playing every other day for six or seven weeks,” Storm head coach and general manager George Burnett said.
“Our kids just continued to find a way to win during the playoffs. They are a group that would much rather play and practice at this time of the year and we are seeing that in the effort they have put forward during this run.”
Although none of the players on the Raiders’ roster have been this far before, members of the team’s staff know what it’s like to be at the Memorial Cup.
Habscheid and assistant coach Jeff Truitt captured the title as event hosts with the 2004 Kelowna Rockets, while general manager Curtis Hunt was part of the Raiders team that won it all in 1985.
In addition to serving as an assistant coach with Habscheid at the event in 2003 and leading the charge for the Rockets in 2005, Truitt was also an assistant coach for the Red Deer Rebels when they hosted the tournament in 2016.