The Prince Albert Raiders’ quick start this year has had a lot of discussion surrounding the club’s chances of challenging for the top seed in the Western Hockey League’s Eastern Conference.
Despite losing 6-4 to the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Wednesday, the Raiders still hold a one-point lead on the Calgary Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings for top spot in the combined standings of the Central and East Division standings.
What has been lost in the discussion, however, is that Prince Albert is 11 points up on the Swift Current Broncos and Moose Jaw Warriors, and another two points in front of the Regina Pats and Saskatoon Blades, for the East Division lead.
Although finishing first in the conference standings would be nice, as it guarantees home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs on this side of the mountains, claiming the top spot in the East Division would ensure the Raiders were no worse than the No. 2 seed when the post-season begins in March.
That is why divisional games are so important and the Raiders have a great opportunity to strengthen their lead this weekend when they face Regina in a home-and-home series beginning tonight at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre.
“Divisional games are of the outmost importance,” says Raiders’ associate coach Dave Manson. “We have to find a way to get points.”
“Things are tightening up and we know how tough it is to make the playoffs,” adds Manson in reference to the fact that Prince Albert has missed the post-season four of the last five years. “We can’t let games slip away.”
Prince Albert, which had its six-game home-ice winning streak snapped with Wednesday’s loss, has only met Regina once this year with the Pats recording a convincing 4-1 victory on Oct. 3.
Regina, which recently returned from a successful trip through British Columbia where they won two and had two shootout losses in five games, is two games below .500 at 11-13-1-2.
That doesn’t sound very impressive, but when you consider the team has lost more than 100 man-games due to injury it shows they are a team that comes to work every day.
“We have to be prepared,” admits Manson. “We have to make sure we look after the Raiders.”
It will be a decimated Pats lineup that takes to the ice tonight and again on Sunday in Regina as six regulars -- Chandler Stephenson, Trent Ouellette, Colton Jobke, Dryden Hunt, Emil Sylvegard and Jack Rodewald -- are all out with a variety of injuries and several more are on the shelf as a flu bug has hit the team hard. When Regina practised on Wednesday there were just 14 skaters to go through the paces.
Lane Scheidl (16-16-32) and Morgan Klimchuk (14-15-29) have been the offensive stars while goaltender Matt Hewitt has been largely responsible for the Pats staying in the thick of the East Division race.
To help the club through the crisis situation, the Pats have summoned Connor Gay from the Kindersley Klippers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. The Raiders have also dipped into the SJHL pool as 19-year-old forward Austin Daae has joined the team after scoring 16 points in 21 games with the Estevan Bruins. Daae, who played 52 games with the Prince George Cougars last year, is being brought in not for injuries, but to prepare the Raiders for a man-shortage situation they will face in a couple weeks as several players attend international tournaments being held in Canada and Russia.
RAIDER NOTES: Joey Santucci is the only Raider player not available for the weekend as he is still recovering from a lower-body injury … Fans are reminded that Second Half Season Ticket packages are available for home games from Dec. 28-March 16. The offer will result in significant savings over the walk-up price for each game and guarantees a seat for the playoffs and for next season. The Raiders have been attracting larger crowds this year and it will only get tougher to get a seat as the playoffs approach. Call the Raider office for more information … It’s Teddy Bear Toss Night tonight with fans encouraged to bring a stuffed toy to the game. All toys that are tossed on the ice after the Raiders score their first goal will be given to the Salvation Army and the Victoria Hospital.