Current Raiders/Blades rivalry in good spot for P.A. fans

Herald file photo. Aiden Oiring of the Prince Albert Raiders squares up for a faceoff with Saskatoon Blades captain Trevor Wong at the SaskTel Centre on Sept 24, 2023. The Blades have won all three meetings between the two teams this season.

Stanks On Sports

For the Prince Albert Raiders faithful, some of the best victories against the archrival Saskatoon Blades are underdog victories.

As the story of the 2023-24 WHL season plays out, the tale of the Raiders rivalry with the Blades appears to be clear for the current campaign. The Blades are the front runners sitting first overall in the Eastern Conference with a 23-8-2 record and are jockeying for top spot in the entire league with the Prince George Cougars. The Raiders are the underdogs currently holding a playoff spot sitting sixth overall in the Eastern Conference with a 17-15-0-2 mark.

For Raiders fans, this can be a sweet scenario. When the Blades are doing well, the Raiders followers have a tendency to see their Saskatoon rivals like the Dallas Cowboys and their owner Jerry Jones, when they were winning with their early 1990s swagger in the NFL.

When the Raiders beat the Blades in that situation, Raiders fans see that as a moment to remind the Blades and their supporters they might not be as good as their record says they are. For Raiders fans, the only other time victories over the Blades are sweeter is when they happen in the post-season.

So far this season, the Blades have prevented the Raiders faithful from experiencing any joy at their expense. The Blades have claimed the three head-to-head encounters between the two clubs so far this season.

Actually, the Blades have won 24 of the last 35 encounters with the Raiders. Still, Raiders fans have whooped up every one of their team’s 11 victories over the Blades during that time.

The two sides go at again on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon in what will be their fourth of 10 meetings this season. You can be sure a good contingent will once again motor from “Hockey Town North” to “The Bridge City” for this encounter.

That encounter will be the first contest for both teams after returning from their respective Christmas breaks. The Blades will go into that contest short-handed.

Blades star 19-year-old centre Fraser Minten is away serving as captain for Canada’s team at the world juniors which are going right now in Gothenburg, Sweden. Import 18-year-old defenceman Samuel Barcik is also at world juniors playing for Slovakia.

Blades star 18-year-old defenceman Tanner Molendyk was originally on Canada’s roster for world juniors. Molendyk suffered a fractured wrist in Canada’s 6-2 win over Switzerland in a pre-tournament game this past Friday and is currently unavailable to play for Canada or the Blades.

The Raiders roster is good enough to beat the Blades at full strength, if everyone on the Prince Albert side is playing their best. Prince Albert’s chances of obtaining victory increase with the Blades missing three key players.

It could be argued that Molendyk, who was selected in the first round and 24th overall by the Nashville Predators in the NHL Entry Draft held this past June, is the biggest absence. Molendyk, who signed an NHL entry-level contract with the Predators, is a smooth skating, puck carrying offensive-defenceman who can control action at both ends of the rink. That the Raiders won’t have to contend with him is a big bonus for the Prince Albert squad.

The Raiders have their share the players who will be handful for the Blades throughout the rest of the campaign. Raiders star 20-year-old winger Sloan Stanick leads his club in scoring with 40 points (13 goals and 27 assists).

Ryder Ritchie, Aiden Oiring and Niall Crocker are having solid seasons in the forward group, while Justice Christensen, Eric Johnson and Terrell Goldsmith are pacing things on the back end. The Raiders younger players are continuing to improve as the campaign goes on. In goal, Max Hildebrand and Chase Coward are both capable of stealing games.

The Raiders special teams units have been plugging along too. Their power play ranks ninth in the WHL scoring on 29-of-138 chances for a 21.0 per cent success rate. The Raiders penalty kill is rated fifth in the WHL having killed 106-of-128 power-play attempts for the opposition for an 82.8 per cent success rate.

Prince Albert is more that capable of making life tough for their archrivals from Saskatoon throughout the rest of the current campaign.

Rockets appear to be coming around, other notes

Have the Kelowna Rockets elevated themselves to potential bracket busters?

Since the start of the 2000-01 campaign, the Rockets have been one of the WHL’s elite franchises. Last season, they went through a reloading campaign making the post-season as the eighth seed in the Western Conference with a 27-37-4 mark. In the WHL Playoffs, the Rockets were swept away in four games in the first round by the eventual WHL champion Seattle Thunderbirds.

For a lot of the current campaign, it felt like the reload was still on. Then, the Rockets went 7-2 in their last nine games heading into their WHL Christmas break to improve to 15-15-2. One has to wonder if the Rockets have turned the corner.

They return from their Christmas break on Wednesday when they travel to Kamloops to face the 8-20-3-2 Blazers. If the Rockets continue building off the momentum they built going into their Christmas break, they will show they are for real this season and a team the rest of the clubs in the WHL better be aware of.

The Rockets are led by star left-winger Andrew Cristall, who was selected in the second round and 40th overall by the Washington Capitals in the NHL Entry Draft held this past June. He has signed an NHL entry-level contract with the Capitals. Cristall sits inside the top seven of scoring for the entire WHL with 52 points coming off 18 goals and 34 assists to go with a plus-15 rating in the plus-minus department.

Rising star 17-year-old left-winger Tij Iginila is living up to his family name. He sits 20th in scoring in the WHL with 42 points coming off 25 goals and 17 assists to go with a plus-two rating.

Caden Price, who is a star 18-year-old offensive defenceman, anchors the Rockets back end. Price, who was selected in the third round and 84th overall by the Seattle Kraken in last June’s NHL Entry Draft, leads the Rockets in defencemen scoring with 23 points coming off four goals and 19 assists.

Goaltending has been the inconsistent spot for the Rockets. Starter Jari Kykkanen, who is in his 19-year-old season, has a 3.57 goals against average and a .889 save percentage. Backup in 17-year-old rookie Jake Pilon has a 4.19 goals against average and a .879 save percentage.

If the Rockets can get some more consistent play out of their netminders, they could surprise a few opponents when the post-season comes around.

  • Zac Funk and Riley Heidt, who are teammates on the Cougars, are neck and neck for top spot in the WHL’s scoring race with 63 points. Funk, who is a 20-year-old right-winger, holds the top spot posting 36 goals and 27 assists to go with a plus-24 rating. Heidt, who is an 18-year-old centre, has 17 goals and 46 assists to go with a plus-14 rating.
  • Cougars rookie 17-year-old netminder Joshua Ravensberger leads the WHL with a .934 save percentage. Ravensberger has posted a 12-3 record, a 1.86 goals against average and six shutouts this season. Ravensberger has tied the WHL record for most shutouts by a rookie, and he currently shares that mark with seven other players.
  • The Cougars have the WHL’s top power play and penalty kill. On the power play, the Cougars have converted on 46-of-149 chances for a 30.9 per cent success rate. On the penalty kill, the Cougars have killed off 116-of-134 opposition power play chances for an 86.6 per cent success rate.
  • Wenatchee Wild 20-year-old blue-liner Graham Sward tops the WHL in scoring by defencemen. Sward has 46 points coming off seven goals and 39 assists to go with a plus-33 rating.
  • In the last CHL Top 10 rankings that were released on December 19, only the Cougars and Blades were able to crack into the Top 10. The Cougars are rated second, while the Blades are rated sixth.

Darren Steinke is a Saskatoon-based freelance sportswriter and photographer with more than 20 years of experience covering the WHL. He blogs frequently at