Meger, d-men, depth power Raiders to victory vs. Brandon

Prince Albert Raiders forward Justin Nachbaur (29) carries the puck up ice along with teammate Sean Montgomery (25) against the Brandon Wheat Kings during the teams' Feb. 16, 2018 WHL game from P.A. -- Evan Radford/Daily Herald

The Prince Albert Raiders used steady goaltending from Curtis Meger, their defencemen’s knack for offence and a finishing touch from their leadership group to down the Brandon Wheat Kings 5-2 Friday night in Western Hockey League action.

“Good teams find a way to win, and I think that’s what happened here tonight. We found a way,” Raiders alternate captain Parker Kelly said after the game.

“That was a must-win game, and you know we’re trying to catch them in the standings as well. We have to play winning hockey, and before we were playing losing hockey.”

The P.A. club entered the game after a disappointing set of three games last weekend, during which it lost all three contests to divisional opponents. That included the Saskatoon Blades, whom the Raiders are chasing in the standings to earn a playoff spot.

Meger had a rough start in the first game, a Feb. 9, 5-1 loss in Swift Current, during which he let in four goals on 14 shots in the first period.

After that, he buckled down and stopped 20 of 21 shots over the second and third periods. Meger was also called in to relieve goalie Ian Scott on Feb. 11 against Swift Current; he stopped 12 of 13 shots over 26 minutes of play.

He said getting the win versus Brandon on Friday felt good.

“I felt my start in Swift didn’t go as planed. My first period was shaky, but I felt the second and third period I was getting my game back … for these guys in the dressing room, today, I really wanted to come in and show them I’m here to play.”

During the week leading up to the game, Meger said he and the team’s goaltending coach, Kelly Guard, had a bit of a reset.

“We sat down, had a chat and got back to the basics. We said, ‘You know what? Just be a guy back there that can change the game.’ And tonight I think I made the saves I needed to make.”

He did just that. Meger had at least three crucial saves during the game that kept momentum on the Raiders’ side and stifled any chances of a Wheat Kings’ comeback.

That included one Wheat Kings’ shot from the high faceoff circle that seemingly no one (including this reporter, who was at ice level) could see through traffic, no one except for Meger, who made a deft glove save on it.

The Regina native also commended his defencemen for quickly moving the puck out of the Raiders’ zone and for keeping the pressure and their attack towards Brandon’s side of the ice.

P.A.’s backend guys had a knack for points on the night, tallying five total points, including goals from Zack Hayes (who had the game-winner) and Vojtech Budik.

Brayden Pachal, Max Matin and Sergei Sapego all assisted on goals, and Sapego and Martin were instrumental in pressuring Brandon into turnovers to set up plays for the team’s first and second goals (scored by Brett Leason and Regan Nagy, respectively, in the first period).

Pacahal set up Hayes’ game-winner by cycling the puck down low in Brandon’s zone.

Prince Albert Raiders defenceman Zack Hayes watches the puck as his teammates cycle it in the Brandon Wheat Kings’ zone during the teams’ Feb. 16, 2018 WHL game from P.A. — Evan Radford/Daily Herald

By the start of the third period, the Raiders were up 2-1 on Brandon. After Hayes sniped his goal at 3:01, Brandon cut the deficit to one on a Ty Lewis score at 3:24.

P.A.’s leadership players put the game to bed soon after. Budik put the Raiders up by two goals at 6:54. And then at 15:44 while on a two-on-one in Brandon’s zone, Kelly made a smart, last-second pass to Kody McDonald to goalie Logan Thompson’s wide side; McDonald tucked the puck home to make the final score 5-2.

After the game, Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid wanted to underscore the play of his depth players, including centreman Sean Montgomery, who found success throughout the night with fellow forwards Justin Nachbaur and Brett Leason.

The Raiders’ forechecking pressure on Brandon often came from that trio of forwards.

“I think Monty goes unnoticed. But Monty is Monty, and Monty makes players around him better, because he’s smart, he’s selfless and he always makes the right plays. He’s good defensively,” Habscheid said.

“Those two benefit from having him as a centreman, because they can trust him and he makes plays. (Leason and Nachbaur) have really played well recently; they’re big guys and they have real high-end skills.”

The Raiders (23-23-9-2) head to Brandon on Saturday for an evening rematch with the Wheat Kings (30-22-3-2). Game time is 7:30 p.m. CST.

With the Raiders’ win and a Regina Pats’ regulation-time win Friday against Moose Jaw, the Pats (30-24-5-1) have now jumped ahead of Brandon in the WHL’s East Division standings. Brandon sits in fourth place and Regina is in third place.

The Raiders are in sixth place, four points back of the Saskatoon Blades and eight points back of Brandon.