The Prince Albert Raiders knew the stretch of games surrounding the Christmas break would be difficult.
After all, they were going to be without four of their regular players due to commitments at various international tournaments and that most certainly was going to disrupt the chemistry the team had developed in getting to the top of the Western Hockey League’s East Division standings.
Throw in a blockbuster trade in the midst of those games and one would expect the club to be in total disarray.
With a pair of victories over the Saskatoon Blades right after the break, it looked like the team wasn’t going to miss a beat, but following Wednesday’s disappointing loss to the Medicine Hat Tigers, the team the Raiders made the huge player swap with, and those expectations certainly looked valid.
The Raiders showed a marked improvement in their next outing, but still suffered a crucial loss to the Blades and then on Saturday at the Art Hauser Centre, Prince Albert played even better only to once again lose by a similar three-goal margin.
“From Medicine Hat to Sasktoon to tonight we were a lot better,” admitted Raiders head coach Steve Young following the 5-2 setback to the Regina Pats on Saturday. “But, three losses are enough. It’s time to get back on track.”
Help is on the way for the Raiders as Mark McNeill and Leon Draisaitl returned to Prince Albert late on Sunday after competing at the world junior hockey championship in Ufa, Russia. McNeill was an injury replacement for the fourth-place Canadian squad while Draisaitl was a major force for Germany, who avoided relegation and will play in the main tournament in consecutive years for the first time since 1998 when the event is held in Sweden next year.
Also back in Prince Albert are Reid Gardiner and Tim Vanstone, who were with Team West at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Quebec. Young says the pair of 16-year-olds play key roles with the team and will be welcome additions to the club when they take on the Pats again on Wednesday at the Art Hauser Centre.
On Saturday, Braden Christoffer opened and closed the scoring for the Pats, who won for the fourth straight game. Dyson Stephenson, Lane Scheidl and Morgan Klimchuk also scored for Regina, who were outshot 32-20. Dakota Conroy had both goals for the Raiders, who despite the outcome played much better than earlier games in the week.
Another aspect of the game, which might carry over into Wednesday’s rematch, was the rugged play as there were a trio of fights and plenty of heavy hits.
Despite the three losses this week, the Raiders, who fall to 24-14-0-3, still have an eight-point lead over the Blades for first place in the East Division. With that said, however, they have to right the ship soon as once they finish the next stretch where they play three of four on home ice, they take to the road for the gruelling tour of the British Columbia Division. They will play a game in Brandon before heading west for five games in seven nights.
RAIDER NOTES: With the return of McNeill, Draisaitl, Gardiner and Vanstone, the Raiders have reassigned four players who were brought in to be with the team during their absence. Luke Mahura, who played in all five games since Christmas, is back with the Bonneyville Pontiacs of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Spencer Meyer has been returned to his junior team in B.C., Nick McBride is playing midget hockey in B.C. and Brendan Guhle is in Alberta playing major midget hockey.