Protas and Usau hoping to play for Belarus on home soil

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Prince Albert Raiders forward Aliaksei Protas led the Western Hockey League in scoring as headed to Minsk, Belarus for his country's World Junior camp earlier this week.

Although nothing is assured until the training camp is complete, Aliaksei Protas and Ilya Usau are on the verge of representing Belarus with a rink full of fans cheering them on.

The Prince Albert Raiders teammates are currently in Minsk for the team’s selection camp as they look to earn a spot on the squad for the 2020 Division I World Juniors, which will be held in Belarus’ capital from Dec. 9-15.

“It’s always an honour to represent Belarus, especially when it’s in a big tournament,” Protas said. “We’re going to try our best to make the roster and help our country.”

“If we are fortunate to make the team, it should be a lot of fun to be playing as the hosts,” Usau added. “The rink should be pretty close to packed there and our country is looking to do so big things.”

Protas was at last year’s tournament in Fussen, Germany, where he was joined by former Raider blueliner Sergei Sapego and finished third in team scoring with five points.

Belarus finished the tournament in second place with a 3-2 record as the host Germans topped the six-team field and were promoted to this year’s main World Junior tournament in Ostrava and Trinec, Czech Republic.

“I got to play with and against a lot of the 1999-born players at the tournament, so it was a really good experience for me,” Protas said.

The Washington Capitals prospect is one of two National Hockey League draft picks at the camp; with the other being signed Florida Panthers defensive prospect Vladislav Kolyachonok of the OHL’s Flint Firebirds.

“There are a few new guys that are going to be there with the 1999-born players being to old to play at the tournament,” Protas said. “We have a lot of good guys though that are playing at home along with the guys that are over here in the CHL (Canadian Hockey League), so it’s a good mix for us.”

After posting 40 points in 61 games during the Raiders’ run to the Ed Chynoweth Cup last season, Protas is off to an impressive start to his sophomore campaign as his 42 points in 27 games have him tied with Dylan Cozens of the Lethbridge Hurricanes and James Hamblin of the Medicine Hat Tigers for the most points in the Western Hockey League heading into Wednesday’s slate of games.

“I learned about hockey and life out here in Canada last year, which helped me out a lot heading into this season,” Protas said.

“I have good chemistry with my linemates and all of my teammates here, so hopefully our good start to the season can continue.”

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Ilya Usau controls the puck during a rush up the ice at the Art Hauser Centre last month.

Usau, who spent the last two seasons with the Salisbury School prep program in Connecticut and was committed to the NCAA’s UConn Huskies before inking a deal with the Raiders in late August, is off to a strong in his first WHL campaign.

His 21 points in 27 games are good enough for fifth in team scoring and have him in a tie with Pavel Novak of the Kelowna Rockets for fourth place among rookies in the league.

“It’s just great to be a part of this team, especially with how well we are doing to start the season,” Usau said of the 18-5-3-1 Raiders, who currently have a 10-point lead in the East Division ahead of a Friday night home game with the Rockets.

“Everyone is trying to help out in whatever way that we can and hopefully we can keep things going in the right direction as we head into the second half.”

Although he hasn’t competed at the World Juniors, Usau has played for Belarus at the last two World Under-18 Hockey Championships.

“Those tournaments helped me out a lot as I got to see what other teams do and I had the chance to play against the best guys from all of the other countries,” Usau said.

“The whole experience of going through the camp probably won’t be as nerve-racking or as stressful as it could have been if I hadn’t played at the Under-18’s.”

Belarus will be joined in the tournament by Denmark, Norway, Latvia, Austria and Slovenia.

The top team in the standings after a five-game round-robin format will be promoted to the 2021 World Juniors, which will be held in Edmonton and Red Deer.

While Protas and Usau are overseas, the Raiders are gearing up for a Friday night matchup with the 2020 Memorial Cup host Kelowna Rockets at the Art Hauser Centre.

Following that game, the Raiders will go on the road to face the Moose Jaw Warriors on Saturday.

Tuesday’s Scores

  • Brandon 7 Swift Current 3 (Ty Thorpe – Two Goals)
  • Edmonton 3 Moose Jaw 1 (Jake Neighbours – One Goal and One Assist)
  • Medicine Hat 8 Lethbridge 3 (Brett Kemp – Two Goals and Two Assists)
  • Portland 3 Prince George 0 (Seth Jarvis – One Goal and Two Assists – Joel Hofer – 23 Saves – Third Shutout This Season and Seventh Career)
  • Spokane 4 Seattle 1 (Cordel Larson – Two Assists)

Sunday’s Scores

  • Red Deer 3 Calgary 2 (Josh Tarzwell Overtime Winner – Byron Fancy – 29 Saves)
  • Edmonton 7 Regina 1 (Vladimir Alistrov – One Goal and Two Assists)

Pre-Game Notes

Friday’s matchup at the Art Hauser Centre will mark the start of a bi-annual road swing through the East Division for the Rockets, who are second in the BC Division with a 14-8-1-2 record.

They are currently hold a three-game win streak over the Raiders, with their last loss coming in a 3-1 contest on Dec. 18, 2015 in Prince Albert.

Rookie forward Pavel Novak will be the serving the second-last game of an eight-game suspension on Friday that he received for a checking from behind major penalty and a game misconduct for a hit on Kamloops Blazers forward Kyrell Sopotyk on Nov. 11.

The Rockets will also be without forward Kyle Topping (ankle) and Liam Kindree (shoulder) for the contest.

Meanwhile, the status of Raiders overage forward Brayden Watts is still up in the air after he left Saturday’s game in Swift Current with an apparent right leg injury during the second period.

Wednesday’s Schedule

  • Swift Current vs. Winnipeg – 7:30 p.m.
  • Everett vs. Lethbridge – 8 p.m.
  • Moose Jaw vs. Red Deer – 8 p.m.
  • Portland vs. Prince George – 9 p.m.
  • Vancouver vs. Victoria – 9 p.m.

Friday’s Schedule

  • Red Deer vs. Moose Jaw – 7 p.m.
  • Kelowna vs. Prince Albert – 7 p.m.
  • Everett vs. Swift Current – 7 p.m.
  • Kamloops vs. Brandon – 7:30 p.m.
  • Regina vs. Winnipeg – 7:30 p.m.
  • Edmonton vs. Calgary – 8 p.m.
  • Medicine Hat vs. Lethbridge – 8 p.m.
  • Seattle vs. Victoria – 9 p.m.
  • Spokane vs. Vancouver – 9:30 p.m.