The calendar might have flipped to a new year, but the Prince Albert Raiders are hoping that is the only thing that has changed when they host the Medicine Hat Tigers in Western Hockey League action tonight at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre.
After finishing the 2011-12 campaign dead last in the 22-team league, the Raiders have been the biggest surprise this year having already won more games than they did all of last season. Prince Albert put an exclamation point on the incredible turnaround with a weekend sweep over the Memorial Cup host Saskatoon Blades and now have a double-digit cushion atop the East Division standings.
The Raiders, who are 24-11-0-3, have won their last three games with the club having registered at least one point in their last four matches.
To further emphasis where the Raiders are at, the victories over Saskatoon were accomplished without four of their regulars, including team captain Mark McNeill and rookie sensation Leon Draisaitl. Both are at the world junior hockey championship in Ufa, Russia, with McNeill helping Canada go for gold while Draisaitl is turning heads in trying to secure ‚ÄúA‚ÄĚ pool status for his native Germany.
Also gone are 16-year-old rookies Reid Gardiner and Tim Vanstone, both who are with Team West at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Quebec.
All four of those players will be gone for the rest of this week as the Raiders begin 2013 with three games in four nights. After the Tigers make their first visit to Prince Albert tonight, the Raiders are back in Saskatoon on Friday before hosting the Regina Pats on Saturday.
The Raiders and Tigers have only met once this year, and Prince Albert‚Äôs head coach Steve Young says the team can‚Äôt sit back just because they won that contest 7-0.
‚ÄúThey are a team that can be very explosive,‚ÄĚ acknowledged Young. ‚ÄúWe can‚Äôt take them for granted.‚ÄĚ
The Tigers have had a turbulent season.
During the opening weekend, overage forward Kale Kessey was given a 12-game suspension for a hit-to-the-head infraction on Duck Lake native Ryan Pilon of the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Kessey was subsequently dealt to the Vancouver Giants.
Prince Albert product Dawson MacAuley started the year with the Tigers, but after just six appearances was sent to the Yorkton Terriers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and replaced by Cam Lanigan, who Medicine Hat picked up from the Portland Winterhawks.
Second-year forward Jayden Hart announced during the Christmas break he was staying home and has since requested a trade and then there have been numerous injuries to stall any positive gains the team seemed to be making.
Still, the Tigers, who are 16-19-2-0, can be dangerous as Curtis Valk leads the team in scoring with 21 goals and 25 assists while team captain Hunter Shinkaruk is one point back with 20-25-45 totals. Shinkaruk has missed games while trying out for the national junior team in addition to suffering a slight knee injury.
RAIDER NOTES: Prince Albert‚Äôs Anthony Bardaro has been named the WHL‚Äôs Denny‚Äôs Player of the Week after collecting four goals and three assists in the two wins over Saskatoon. Bardaro is now second in team scoring with 14 goals and 22 assists and trails McNeill by just three points for the overall lead‚Ä¶With the Raiders missing four regulars, they have filled their roster with three prospects as Luke Mahura, Spencer Meyer and Brendan Guhle have been with the club since the Christmas break and will remain with the Raiders until the end of the week. Goaltending prospect Nick McBride, a 15-year-old from B.C., is also with the team this week to get some practise time at the WHL level while he is on a school break‚Ä¶Tonight is another Las Vegas Night promotion with all fans over the age of 21 eligible to enter a draw for a trip for two to the Nevada gambling centre.