“Hockey Town North” faithful can give boost to Raiders

The Prince Albert Raiders are hoping a shift in scenery will bring them success in the playoffs. --Submitted photo/Darren Steinke

The Prince Albert Raiders faithful might be able to give the Winnipeg Ice an education on what it is like to be on the road in the WHL Playoffs.

As the series between the Raiders and Ice shifts to Prince Albert for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Wednesday respectfully at 7 p.m. both nights, the Ice players might get caught off guard about what awaits them at the Art Hauser Centre. It is unlikely they will know what the post-season atmosphere is like inside the Raiders storied home until they are skating on the Hauser’s ice surface.

It is safe to say Ice head coach James Patrick remembers what the playoff atmosphere in the Hauser is like. Patrick played one season for the Raiders back when the team was still in the junior A ranks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.

As a 17-year-old, Patrick starred on defence for the Raiders in 1980-81 and helped them win their third Centennial Cup as national junior A champions. Patrick, who is still viewed as one of the best ever to play defence for the Raiders, was then selected in the first round and ninth overall by the New York Rangers in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft, but he never forgot how all of “Hockey Town North” got invested in the Raiders.

Even with Patrick’s experience, it is hard to describe the playoff atmosphere inside the Art Hauser Centre until you are experiencing it in person. That intangible might be the thing that gives the Raiders a boost to get back in their series against the Ice.

To be honest, the Ice are heavy favourites to take the best-of-seven first round series against the Raiders. Winnipeg topped the overall WHL standings with a 53-10-3-2 record.

Prince Albert won two must-win games to close the regular season to finish eighth overall in the Eastern Conference to lock up the conference’s final post-season berth with a 28-35-4-1 record. The Raiders did win three out of the eight head-to-head encounters in the regular season against the Ice, so the Prince Albert side has caused the Winnipeg side some problems.

The first two games of the playoff series held in Winnipeg at the Wayne Fleming Arena between the two sides played out like experts who don’t have attachments to either side have thought. The Ice lead the series 2-0 posting a 3-1 victory in Game 1 last Friday and a 5-2 triumph in Game 2 last Saturday.

For the most part, the Raiders have been in both games. Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid, who sits fifth on the WHL’s career regular season head coaching wins list with 582 victories, and assistant coach Jeff Truitt are well versed in game planning for a seven game series.

At the moment, the Raiders just need to do their best to correct some little things to have an even better chance to rally back in the series. The first thing the Raiders need to do is get off to better starts.

When it came to first periods in Games 1 and 2, the Ice got the jump on the Raiders. In Game 1, the Ice held an 11-2 advantage in shots on goal and had a 1-0 edge on the scoreboard after 20 minutes en route to a 3-1 win.

In Game 2, the Ice held a 14-6 advantage in shots on goal and had a 3-1 lead on the scoreboard after 20 minutes en route to a 5-2 win. Playing in front of the Art Hauser Centre faithful should help supply the Raiders with a better jump out of the gate in Games 3 and 4.

Avoiding ill timed infractions is another big thing. In both Games 1 and 2, the Ice took 2-0 leads and the Raiders proceeded to cut the gaps to 2-1.

Shortly after cutting the deficit to one, the Raiders ended up with a minor infraction and the Ice scored on the ensuing power play both times to go up 3-1. That has already been talked about quite a bit by Raiders supporters.

The Raiders need to avoid giving up soft goals. It can be argued the Ice got a couple of easy goals in their Game 2 victory.

The scoring by committee has to return for the Raiders too. It is great overage captain Reece Vitelli has been in on every Raiders goal in the series with two markers and one assist, but other guys need to score too.

If the Raiders are able to correct those little things, they will make life that much harder on the Ice. At the moment, the first step is having a good start in Game 3, and the Raiders faithful can help there providing a raucous atmosphere at puck drop that keeps going through the end of the game.

2-0 starts plentiful in WHL first round

The first round of the WHL Playoffs could potentially be a quick one.

Out of the eight best-of-seven first round series that are being held by the circuit, six of those sets sees one side hold a 2-0 series lead. In each case, the club that finished higher in the regular season standings holds the 2-0 edge.

Only the series between the Red Deer Rebels and the Brandon Wheat Kings in the Eastern Conference and the Everett Silvertips and Vancouver Giants in the Western Conference are tied at 1-1.

In the first campaign back after the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has gripped the world canceled two WHL post-seasons, the league elected to return to the conference playoff format last used in 2013-14 campaign. The 2014 WHL Playoffs saw four of the eight first round series end in 4-0 sweeps using the conference format.

At the moment in the WHL Playoffs, the pressure is on the clubs that are down in the 2-0 series to win their respective Game 3s. In the history of the WHL dating back to the circuit’s start in 1966-67, only two teams have rallied back to win a best-of-seven series having trailed the set 3-0.

The Spokane Chiefs, who were guided by Mike Babcock as head coach, trailed the Portland Winterhawks 3-0 before rallying to take a first round series 4-3 in 1996. The Kelowna Rockets fell behind the Seattle Thunderbirds 3-0 in a first round series in 2013 before battling back to claim that series 4-3.

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