How Art thou: WHL playoff series between Blades, Raiders switches to Art Hauser Centre

Herald File Photo. The Prince Albert Raiders celebrate a goal during a home game against Saskatoon earlier this season.

Darren Zary

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

The Saskatoon Blades and Prince Albert Raiders are trading places.

Their Western Hockey League Eastern Conference best-of-seven quarter-final series switches over to the Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert for the next two games Tuesday and Wednesday, with the Raiders now the home team and the Blades the visitors.

The first two games were played at SaskTel Centre, which feels like a behemoth venue compared to the Art Hauser, where people will undoubtedly be crammed to the rafters.

“Obviously the Art Hauser is a really tough place to play in — it’s small and their fans are loud — but I think we just stick to our game and take it to them and we’ll do just fine,” said Blades rookie goalie Evan Gardner, who made 31 saves in a 4-1 Saskatoon victory in Game 2.

The Raiders look forward to a change of venues after earning a split on the road.

“In front of our home crowd is going to be tremendous,” said Raiders head coach Jeff Truitt. “It’s going to be loud and their support is very much appreciated and there’s no other place to play than the Art Hauser Centre in a playoff game against Saskatoon, so I’m sure it’s going to be a very lively one there.”

With the series knotted at one game apiece, the next two games are likely pivotal. Game 2 is even more physical than Game 1, so Truitt expects the intensity to ramp up even more.

“Absolutely,” said Truitt. “Now we’ve got a pivotal Game 3 and you want to get that lead. Again, these teams are going to battle. They’re going to scrape and claw for anything they can get. Discipline’s at a premium here and any advantage that’s given to a team, and they finish, could be the difference. It’s a fine line.”

Although the Blades and Raiders have a rich playoff history, none of it was played during current head coach Brennan Sonne’s tenure and no current Blade had previously experienced this arch-rivalry, playoff style.

“I haven’t played a playoff game in their barn, so I’m going to have to see, but at the same time, it’s just an ice sheet out there,” offered Sonne, whose team placed first in the WHL during the regular season with 50 wins.

“That’s where it’s played. You have to just focus on what you have to do on the ice and ignore all the other stuff. It’s one of the keys to the series, is just play between the whistles, box out, block out all the other noise.”

For the most part, Sonne liked what he saw from his team in Game 2. While the first period was a mix and the Blades had to weather the storm for a stretch, they managed to carry the play in the second period and take over the game, which eventually turned a little rougher in the final period.

“You can’t really evaluate the third just because of how squirrelly it was,” said Sonne.

Blades defenceman John Babcock, for one, said he isn’t “afraid of physicality and won’t shy away from it,” wherever the game is played.

“In their barn, it’s going to be a good one,” said Babcock, who was obtained at the WHL trade deadline from the Kelowna Rockets. “They play hard and, with their fans, it’s going to come down just to us playing our game.

“It’s a good rivalry. I’ve played in that barn I think twice now, so I feel like I’m pretty used to it now. It comes down to us.”

Getting a split in Saskatoon was a first step for the Raiders.

“Coming in here, it’s a tough building to play against a very good team, and getting Game 1 was great, but it’s far from what we want to accomplish here,” said Truitt. “We know we’ve got a mountain to climb and they’re a powerful team — very explosive — so we have to play a real good style in a disciplined and close-checking fashion in order to win.”