Preview: ‘Free and structured’ Raiders ready for Warriors

Prince Albert Raiders forward Kody McDonald (28) carries the puck up ice while Moose Jaw Warriors forward Jayden Halbgewachs (12) checks him during the teams' March 9, 2018 WHL game from P.A. -- Terran Station/Fragment Media

WHL clubs kick-off round 1 playoff series Friday in Moose Jaw

As far as Marc Habscheid is concerned, all the pressure is on the Moose Jaw Warriors.

“They’ve won the regular season; they’re second-ranked in the country, and we’re an eighth-seed. So in their minds, I’m sure they should sweep us. But we feel good about our group,” the Prince Albert Raiders head coach said.

The two Western Hockey League clubs are set to begin their round 1, best-of-seven playoff series on Friday at 7 p.m. in Moose Jaw.

The Raiders finished in fifth place in the league’s East Division with a 32-27-9-4 record, good enough for the second wildcard playoff spot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference. The Warriors finished with a 52-15-2-3 record, first in the division, conference and league.

Looking ahead to the playoff series, Habscheid said, “We’re going to play free and structured. They’re the team with all the pressure.”

Through eight regular season games, the Raiders beat the Warriors three times, twice in regulation and once in a shootout; of the Warriors’ five wins against the Raiders, the first four were in regulation time and prior to the trade deadline.

Moose Jaw’s lone post-trade-deadline win against P.A. was a 2-1 shootout last week on Tuesday in the Warriors’ home rink.

“We respect them. They’ve done a lot of good things for the regular season. But we think we’re a pretty good team too,” the Raiders coach said. “We certainly plan on showing up on Friday, and not just throwing our sticks on the ice. We’ll be ready.”

Competing with and beating the Warriors means the Raiders will need to shut down their speedy, puck-moving forwards.

That starts with P.A.’s defencemen, and when needed, its penalty kill unit, which is the second-best in the league with an 81.4 per cent success rate.

“Our defence has been a staple of our team. The quicker we get out of our end, the better. And with the penalty kill, it takes a lot of courage to block shots and play in small areas, and our group does that real well. That enables us to be aggressive,” Habscheid said.

Raiders defenceman Zack Hayes will be one of seven players on the team’s defensive unit that Habscheid and fellow coach Dave Manson will rely on to contend with Moose Jaw’s forwards.

Hayes said he doesn’t expect to see anything new from the Warriors, but he expects “they’ll be playing tighter defensively. They should be getting (injured players) back, like Brandon Schuldhaus and Dmitri Zaitsev. They’ll be better on the backend than the last time we played them. But we have proof that we can score against them.”

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

On the Warriors’ front end, there are a number of forwards that Hayes and co. will need to watch. That starts with the speedy, quick-handed Jayden Halbgewachs, who led the league in points and goals scored.

“You always gotta stay on the right side of the puck with him out there. Then you gotta make sure you don’t get beat back to the net with him.”

Raiders forward Kody McDonald, whom the team picked up during trade deadline week, also underscored the Warriors speed and offensive abilities.

“They have a lot of firepower. They’re fast and that’s what they thrive one. So for us, it’s going to be a big defensive battle and making sure we’re the top guys.”

For him and his fellow forwards, McDonald said that means striking a balance between forechecking and back-checking, with some added pressure on Moose Jaw’s defencemen.

“Getting into the offensive zone and making sure we get our stalls, and getting some offensive zone time; it wears guys out. Over a seven-game series, it pays some dividends … (The Warriors) are a team that isn’t well known on the defensive side, more on the offensive side. So playing in the offensive zone is the best defence possible.”

Getting to that point means proper preparation, McDonald said.

“In playoffs the intensity rises, the compete rises a little bit. But it’s tactically the same. It’s just those one, two mistakes per game that could cost us, that could cost them. It just really boils down to who just prepares better.”

Big-picture wise, the 19-year-old Albertan said he’s glad to be entering the postseason on a team that has a winning atmosphere, where each player plays for the guy next to him.

That mindset becomes even more important once playoffs start, when the team’s younger skaters are fighting for its 20-year-old players.

“It’s their last playoff kick at the can, and even for some of the 19-year-olds, you never know what could happen next year.

“It’s always good to just give it your all for your teammates; the younger guys for sure we’ll let them know that. As a younger guy, I didn’t realize as much, because I wasn’t told that you really gotta do it for the older guys, no matter what,” he said.

Younger players have maybe three or four more years for a playoff run, McDonald explained, but “it’s some guys last kick at the can, so they really gotta push themselves too.”

As for McDonald’s on-ice skills, Habscheid commended his grittiness and his abilities in the faceoff circle to win draws, especially on the power play and the penalty kill.

“He wins faceoffs, we get the puck down the ice. On top of that, he’s able to play against the other team’s best players a lot.

“He’s gritty, he does what it takes to win and he’s no fun to play against,” the head coach said.

The following list shows the East Division playoff matchups and the Raiders round 1 playoff schedule. As the first wildcard team, the Brandon Wheat Kings have crossed over to the Central Division to play the Medicine Hat Tigers in the first round of playoffs.

East Division playoff series

(1) Moose Jaw Warriors vs. (5) Prince Albert Raiders

(2) Swift Current Broncos vs. (3) Regina Pats

Raiders’ round 1 playoff schedule

Game 1 – March 23, 7 p.m., at Moose Jaw’s Mosaic Place

Game 2 – March 24, 7 p.m., at Moose Jaw’s Mosaic Place

Game 3 – March 27, 7 p.m. at P.A.’s Art Hauser Centre

Game 4 – March 28, 7 p.m. at P.A.’s Art Hauser Centre

Game 5 (if necessary) – March 31, 7 p.m., at Moose Jaw’s Mosaic Place

Game 6 (if necessary) – April 1, 6 p.m. at P.A.’s Art Hauser Centre

Game 7 (if necessary) – April 3, 7 p.m., at Moose Jaw’s Mosaic Place