Stanks On Sports
The Prince Albert Raiders are finding out just how battle hardened they are.
Currently, the Raiders are taking their first road trip through the U.S. Division since the 2019-20 campaign. Since the 2009-10 campaign, trips through the U.S. Division are some of the toughest jaunts teams from the Eastern Conference can take.
Out of the last 12 times the WHL Championship Series has been contested, the Western Conference has been represented by a U.S. Division team on 10 of those occasions. When Eastern Conference teams go on a U.S. Division road trip, there is always a fear of coming out of that jaunt with no wins or only one win.
Before even getting to play any of the U.S. Division teams, the Raiders opened their current seven-game road trip on November 8 against the Hurricanes in Lethbridge at the Enmax Centre. The Hurricanes were 10-8-2 going into Wednesday night’s games, so they provided a stiff test before going to the United States.
Raiders 17-year-old star right-winger Ryder Ritchie and 18-year-old sophomore defenceman Justice Christensen each had a goal and an assist in a 4-2 victory. Sloan Stanick, the Raiders star 20-year-old left-winger, collected three helpers as well. That helped get a good feeling going before crossing the border into the United States.
The atmosphere in the arenas in the United States is a little different from the rinks in Canada. While there are loud barns with good atmospheres in Canada like the Raiders storied home rink in the Art Hauser Centre, there is a sizable portion of the fan base in Canada that likes to sit between the blue-lines about 10 to 15 rows up. Often those seats are viewed as having the optimal vantage point to see the entire game.
Traditionally in the WHL rinks in the United States, fans want to get as close to the action as possible making the seats in the first five rows next to the glass the most desired seating location. The fans in U.S. rinks go for decibel levels and try to make the noise a force the opposing team feels. Those who are seated in the front row by the glass often love pounding on the glass as a way to make noise.
The classic image of the noisy WHL rink in the United States comes from footage of when the Portland Winterhawks went to the WHL final in four straight years from 2011 to 2014. Shaw showed all those series on television, and you could see and hear the Winterhawks fans trying to hit new heights with the noise during the team’s home games. The endearing image is seeing the Winterhawks fans sing the team’s long time goal song in “T.N.T.” by AC/DC.
U.S. fans love the fast paced physical action and the fights, even though there are way a lot less of those on the circuit compared to 15 and especially 23 years ago. The more fast paced physical action there is on the ice the louder the fans get.
Last Friday, the Raiders made their first stop in a U.S. Division city taking on the Spokane Chiefs before 4,705 energized onlookers at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. The Raiders pulled out a gritty 3-2 comeback road win over a Chiefs squad that is 7-7-2 entering play Tuesday.
The Raiders entered the third period trailing 2-1. Raiders 18-year-old centre Harrison Lodewyk scored the equalizer at the 2:40 mark of the third and proceeded to pot the winner with 5:41 remaining in the frame.
That marked the first two-goal game of Lodewyk’s career and the first time the Raiders came back in a game when they went into the third period trailing on the scoreboard. With the Raiders still being more of a relatively young team, those were a couple of great experiences to get under the collective belts of the players.
One day later on Remembrance Day taking on the Tri-City Americans before 3,708 pumped up spectators at the Toyota Center in Kennewick, Wash., the Raiders almost pulled off the comeback script again. The Americans, who were 10-6-1-1 entering play on Tuesday, jumped out to a 4-1 lead after 20 minutes.
The Raiders clawed back in a little in the second to see the Americans head into the second intermission with a 5-3 edge. Christensen scored at the 6:04 mark of the third on the power play to chip the Americans advantage down to 5-4. At that point, it looked like the Raiders were going to comeback all the way, but Americans netminder and former Red Deer Rebels puck stopper Kyle Kelsey slammed the door from that point to earn the 31-save victory.
Prince Albert again had a lot of players who had good nights in the setback. Christensen had an assist to go along with his goal. Stanick, Niall Crocker and Lodewyk all finished with two helpers each.
Entering play Tuesday with an 11-9-0-1 record, the Raiders face some good challenges the rest of the way on the swing. On Tuesday night, they faced the Seattle Thunderbirds in Kent, Wash., at the accesso ShoWare Center. After losing a lot of players from their WHL championship team of a season ago, the Thunderbirds entered the game a surprising 8-5-1 this season.
The Raiders travel to Everett, Wash. on Wednesday to take on the Silvertips, who are 11-7-1 entering play on Tuesday, at the Angel of the Winds Arena. Prince Albert will be trying to prevent the playing of the “T.N.T.” song on Friday, when they jaunt to Portland, Oregon, to face the Winterhawks (12-4-0-1) at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The road swing closes on Sunday when the Raiders make their first visit to Wenatchee, Wash., to face the Wild, who are 11-8-1 entering play on Tuesday, at the Town Toyota Center. If the Raiders can come back with earning a couple of more wins over those last four games, it should cement a belief amongst the players that they are “road warriors” and can handle anything that is thrown their way away from the friendly confines of the Art Hauser Centre.
Firkus on pace for career season, other notes
Jagger Firkus appears to be on his way to having a season that will blow anything else he did in the WHL out of the water.
After returning from training camp activities with the NHL’s Seattle Kraken, Firkus has posted 18 goals, 17 assists and a plus-15 rating in the plus-minus department in his first 18 games with the Moose Jaw Warriors. The 19-year-old star right-winger has been a consistent offensive producer for the WHL club collecting 83 goals and 101 assists in 167 career regular season games entering the current campaign.
Firkus put up 80 points in the 2021-22 campaign and 88 points last season. If he keeps up the current pace he is on, Firkus, who has a signed NHL entry-level contract with the Kraken, will easily have career highs in all statistical categories.
- The Medicine Hat Tigers look poised to have returned as one of the WHL’s top teams. Entering play Tuesday, the Tigers were first in the WHL’s Central Division with a 13-5-2 record and led the field by two standings points for first overall in the WHL. Just two seasons ago, the Tigers had a rare campaign where they bottomed out finishing last in the entire WHL at 11-53-3-1, but they are making that campaign look like an aberration.
- The Victoria Royals lead the WHL in comebacks when trailing after two periods pulling out five wins in that scenario entering play on Tuesday.
- The Saskatoon Blades are a WHL best 12-0 when leading after two periods entering play on Tuesday.
- Graham Sward of the Wild leads the WHL in defence scoring. Entering play on Tuesday, the 20-year-old has five goals, 23 assists for 28 points to go with a plus-18 rating in 18 games.
- On Saturday, the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres assigned Matthew Savoie to the WHL’s Wild. The 19-year-old centre is one of the WHL’s stars. When the Wild franchise was in Winnipeg as the Winnipeg Ice, Savoie posted 73 goals, 119 assists and a plus-105 rating in 149 career regular season games. Zach Benson, an 18-year-old left-winger who is another one of the WHL’s biggest stars in recent years, is still with the Sabres on injured reserve as he recovers from a lower-body injury. He has two assists in six regular season games with the Sabres. The Wild hold Benson’s WHL rights, and he has to be returned to the major junior ranks, if the Sabres elect to not keep him up in the NHL.
- A total of five WHL teams cracked the CHL’s Top 10 Rankings list that was released on Tuesday. The Prince George Cougars were rated second, the Winterhawks third, the Blades came in sixth, the Tigers were ninth and the Warriors were 10th.
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.