Bring on the Blades: Raiders draw archrival Saskatoon in opening round playoff matchup

Herald File Photo. Prince Albert Raider forward Harrison Lodewyk takes a faceoff against Tyler Parr of the Saskatoon Blades during a game at SaskTel Centre earlier this season.

It took until the final weekend of the regular season for the Prince Albert Raiders (31-32-2-3) to clinch a playoff berth, but now they turn their focus to their first round playoff date with their archrival Saskatoon Blades (50-13-2-3).

The Raiders finished eighth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference with 67 points, while Saskatoon took home the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as the best regular season team in the WHL, recording 105 points.

Saskatoon was the stingiest team in the WHL during the regular season in terms of goals allowed. In 68 games, the Blades gave up 163 goals, or an average of approximately 2.4 goals per game.

Raider head coach Jeff Truitt says Prince Albert will have to make the most of the scoring opportunities that they earn.

“We’ve got to skate and pressure them, and we’ve got to score. This is a team that doesn’t give up an awful lot. You’ve got to work for everything you get. When you get those opportunities during a game, you’ve got to capitalize. They may not come often, but you’ve got to make sure you capitalize when you can.”

One of the most intense rivalries in all of junior hockey, the Raiders and Blades were no strangers to each other during the regular season. The two teams played a total of 10 games during the regular season with the Blades holding the edge in the season series 8-2. Of the five games played at the Art Hauser Centre, three went to a shootout.

Prince Albert failed to win a game in Saskatoon during the regular season and in order to win the best-of-seven series, the Raiders will need to win at least one game away from the Art Hauser Centre.

Truitt says the Raiders will need to play to their strengths and execute in the big moments to capture a win on the road.

“You got to get after them, you got to have an aggressive mindset. No matter if you’re here or if you’re there, it doesn’t matter. You got to win on the road in a seven game series, not having home ice advantage. You go into it with a certain game plan, and you have got to execute that game plan. You got make sure that you’re first on pucks. You got to be on the edge and play on the edge every night.”

“We’ve got to get pucks in deep and we’ve got to be first back for our pucks. They’re a good skating team that can make plays. We got to play tight and get our opportunities in that offensive zone. We got to make sure we are hard on the puck.”

The Blades and Raiders squared off in a home-and-home series in the final regular season week, with Saskatoon taking both games outscoring Prince Albert 10-1.

Truitt says the home-and-home gave the Raiders a chance to know what they need to work on going into the playoffs.

“Not many teams change an awful lot going in. The success of the regular season dictates how they play. For us, we’ve got to play our best game. We’ve got to be collectively together and making sure that we’re making good reads and not exposing easy ice for them.”

Saskatoon has made it clear to the rest of the WHL that they have high ambitions with the trades they have made this season. Saskatoon has brought in several high-caliber players including Toronto Maples Leafs prospect Fraser Minten from the Kamloops Blazers in November along with import forward Alexander Suzdalev, who is a Washington Capitals prospect, from the Regina Pats at the end of December.

The Blades have five players on their roster who have been drafted by NHL clubs (Brandon Lisowsky, Fraser Minten, Egor Sidorov and Alexander Suzdalev) while the Raiders only have one NHL drafted player (Terrell Goldsmith).

The Raiders may not feature as many name-brand NHL prospects on their team as the Blades, but captain Eric Johnston says Prince Albert will give it their all against Saskatoon.

“We’re in there for a dogfight. We’re in there for the same reason they are: for a championship. We set our goals on one thing and it’s making the playoffs and getting to the championship. I think (if) we get through them, we have a good chance.”

On paper, Saskatoon enters the series as the heavy favorites as the WHL’s top team during the regular season and a veteran roster coming off an Eastern Conference Final loss to Winnipeg last season.

Johnston says the Raiders are ready for the challenge the series will present.

“I just believe in our room. I think we’ve always been believing in our room from the start to game 68. I think we’ve never had that quit mentality and just stuck with it. I think that underdog mentality is the way to go and never doubt on us.”

The last time the Raiders qualified for the WHL playoffs was back in the 2021-2022 season when they lost in five games to the top-seeded Winnipeg ICE. Only six players who are currently on the Raiders played in that series (Max Hildebrand, Sloan Stanick, Niall Crocker, Harrison Lodewyk, Terrell Goldsmith and Eric Johnston).

With the majority of the roster experiencing their first taste of playoff hockey in the WHL, Truitt says the message to the players is to make the most of the opportunity.

“Enjoy the playoffs. At any level you get in, anything can happen. You can’t freeze up and be tight. You’ve got to go and play and play loose, play the way that you can and play the best of your abilities, but enjoy this. Both buildings are going to be full and they’re going to be loud, which creates that atmosphere of a special time of the season.”

There is some precedent to the matchup with Saskatoon winning the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy and facing the Raiders in the first round. Back in the 2010-11 season, the Blades defeated the Raiders in six games. Matej Stransky had the overtime winner for the Blades in the decisive game six. Saskatoon was swept in the second round that year by the eventual WHL champion Kootenay ICE.

Subhead: Stanick, Christensen named second team East Division All-Stars

A pair of key contributors for the Raiders were recognized with WHL East Division Second Team All-Star nods, announced by the league on Tuesday.

Justice Christensen and Sloan Stanick were both named to the East Division Second All-Star Team after outstanding individual campaigns.

Christensen set a career high with 45 points on the Raider blueline while appearing in all 68 games this season. Christensen was undrafted and was listed and signed by the Raiders in May 2022.

Overager Sloan Stanick received recognition for his career season as he recorded 84 points for the Raiders this season. Stanick was acquired from the Regina Pats in the 2021-22 season in exchange for defenceman Adam McNutt.

Game 1 between the Raiders and Blades goes on Thursday night from the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon. Puck drops at 7 p.m.