The Prince Albert Raiders might be catching fire at the right time to give the 2021-22 campaign a memorable ending.
The current season has been a reload, reset or transition type campaign for the Raiders. On the ice, the team aims to set groundwork that will result in benefits in future seasons as only 19-year-old forward Ozzy Wiesblatt remains from the 2018-19 WHL Championship winning team.
In the present, the Raiders are in the thick of the race to earn a post-season berth, and the team’s current group could leave a memorable mark with how they do in this push.
To start their final 18 games or about the final quarter of their regular season schedule, the Raiders have rolled off four wins and one extra time setback. Entering play on Tuesday, that little hot stretch vaulted the Raiders into eighth place and holders of the final playoff berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
The 23-28-3-1 Raiders sit two points behind the 24-27-3-1 Lethbridge Hurricanes for seventh overall in the conference. The Raiders are two points ahead of the 22-27-3-1 Regina Pats and the 20-28-6-2 Calgary Hitmen, and Prince Albert is three points ahead of the 20-30-5-2 Swift Current Broncos.
The WHL has decided to go to the conference style format for this year’s playoffs which was last used in the 2013-14 campaign. Following the two division winners, the teams with the next six best records in the overall conference standings make the playoffs.
Basically, there are five teams at the moment battling for the last two playoff berths in the Eastern Conference, which means fans will be doing a lot of scoreboard watching. The Pats and Hitmen were in action on Tuesday night following the deadline for this column, so those results could potentially tighten up the scenario that has been laid out.
If the Raiders can extend their streak where they avoid losing in regulation, it will be a huge help in nailing down the post-season berth. To keep a current steak like the one they have going, the current team has to find different ways to win.
That means one night the power play might be hot, the next night someone on the third or fourth line scores a key goal, another night a first liner comes through with a four-point night or a team effort grinds things down defensively for a 1-0 win on another night.
During their last five games, the Raiders are seeing benefits from the improvement of import rookie netminder Tikhon Chaika. Chaika has stopped 140-of-148 shots and posted two shutouts backstopping the Raiders to a 4-0-1 record in their last five outings.
On Monday, Chaika was named the WHL’s goaltender of the week for the week of March 7 to 13 and on Tuesday he was named to the CHL’s team of the week for that same time period.
At the moment, the Raiders current season has some similarities to the 2017-18 campaign. Late in 2017-18, Raiders went on a stretch where they earned standing points in 11 consecutive contests, which include a run of nine straight wins.
That vaulted the Raiders to a 32-27-9-4 regular season record and into the playoffs, where the dropped a tightly contested seven game first round series to the Moose Jaw Warriors, who topped the WHL’s regular season standings that season. The finish of the 2017-18 campaign gave the large group of returning Raiders players the confidence and belief they could accomplish special things in 2018-19, when the team won the WHL title.
For the current Raiders, a good push to earn a post-season spot will make a statement they are a team to be reckoned with and won’t be an easy out.
Pachal set to make NHL debut, other notes
Brayden Pachal, who was the captain of the Raiders 2018-19 WHL Championship team, was set to make his NHL debut Tuesday with the Vegas Golden Knights.
The Knights were in Winnipeg to face the Jets, and Pachal was called up to help a Vegas squad that is expected to have 10 regulars out of the lineup. The 22-year-old defenceman is captain of the Knights AHL affiliate, the Henderson Silver Knights.
In 47 games with the Silver Knights this season, Pachal has posted one goal, seven assists and a minus-seven rating in the plus-minus department.
In the WHL, Pachal joined the Raiders part way through the 2016-17 campaign in a trade with the Victoria Royals. In 164 career regular season games with the Raiders, Pachal posted 25 goals, 64 assists and a plus-65 rating.
- The Edmonton Oil Kings current 14-game winning streak is a franchise record. They will try to extend it Wednesday, when they host the Saskatoon Blades. The Blades are the last team to beat the Edmonton side with a 6-1 triumph back on Feb. 4 at the SaskTel Centre.
- The head-to-head series between the Raiders and Blades this season seems to favour the road teams. The Blades have won three out of four meetings in Prince Albert, and The Raiders have claimed three out of four meetings in Saskatoon. They will collide again on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre for their second last head-to-head meeting of the campaign.
- Just a reminder that the Raiders host the Swift Current Broncos on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre. That contest was rescheduled from Jan. 8 due to COVID-19 protocol factors.
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, where he covers the Saskatoon Hilltops, Saskatoon Valkyries, University of Saskatchewan men’s and women’s hockey, U Sports football and Saskatchewan Female U18 AAA Hockey. He has the distinction of being in the building both times Game Seven of the WHL final went to overtime, including 2019 in Prince Albert.