Although the Prince Albert Raiders dropped a 4-2 decision to the Brandon Wheat Kings on Saturday at the Art Hauser Centre, not all was lost for one of the most improved teams in the Western Hockey League.
Having made the playoffs just once in the past five years, the first objective for the Raiders this year was to get back to the post-season party. Granted, an unbelievable start to the season had the club and their fans looking beyond just a playoff berth, but qualifying for the “dance” is the first step and Prince Albert is now there.
With the Lethbridge Hurricanes losing 7-1 in Kelowna on Saturday, the Raiders are assured of at least a tie-breaker, but all they need is just one point – or one Lethbridge loss – to avoid that scenario.
From there they can focus on where they finish in the standings as they are just two points behind the Red Deer Rebels to secure home-ice advantage for the first round. They also have a game in hand on the Rebels so that race is likely to go down to the wire.
Prince Albert’s chances of finishing first in the East Division are now slim to none as the Saskatoon Blades moved 10 points ahead of the Raiders even though they had their 18-game winning streak snapped with a 5-4 overtime loss to the Warriors in Moose Jaw on Sunday.
With seven games left on the schedule, even though two are head-to-head tilts against the Blades, Prince Albert must switch its focus to catching Red Deer.
Against Brandon, who the Raiders had beaten in all four previous meetings this year, the Raiders played a strong game from start to finish, but just couldn’t capitalize on their chances.
“I thought the shot volume was there,” said Raiders’ head coach Steve Young. “We kept playing to the game plan and we had our chances. We play a game like that again and I like our chances to win.”
Nick Buonassisi opened the scoring for the Wheat Kings when his shot from the top of the face-off circle eluded Raider netminder Luke Siemens. In the past, that kind of goal would have taken some steam out of the Raiders, but not this time.
Prince Albert continued to apply the pressure and had one goal disallowed when it was clear Mike Winther had directed the puck into the Brandon net with a kicking motion. Carson Perreaux then rattled a shot off the post leaving the Raiders still searching for a way to beat Curtis Honey.
“If you score a goal at a timely time like that it changes the game,” says Young.
Buonassisi notched his second goal of the game late in the first period and the score remained that way until the final minute of the middle session when Anthony Bardaro finally got the Raiders on the board.
Less than four minutes into the third stanza Dakota Conroy brought the game on even terms, but a couple of breakdowns later in the final session resulted in Tim McGauley and Jayce Hawryluk putting the game out of reach for the Wheat Kings.
Siemens finished the game with 24 saves while Prince Albert directed 38 blasts at Honey.
RAIDER NOTES: Prior to the game, Lionel Diehl presented his hardest working player of the month award for February with Siemens getting the honour…Not dressed for the game on Saturday were Austin Daae, Tim Vanstone and Riley Guenther – all were healthy scratches…Captain Mark McNeill showed his true colors when after the national anthem was finished he helped the seventh man – seven-year-old Lane Ferster from Debden – to get his helmet back on and snap it in place for the youngster…One of the hardest hits of the season was applied by Harrison Ruopp on Brandon’s Richard Nejezchleb in the second period and for some reason he was penalized for charging. Body contact is becoming a thing of the past in the WHL…Fans are reminded that tickets are still available for the eighth annual Power Breakfast on March 19 when UFC CEO Tom Wright will be the guest speaker. Tickets can be purchased at the Raider office…Prince Albert begins a four-games-in-five-nights stretch on Tuesday when they travel to Swift Current to take on the Broncos for the final time this year. The Raiders are home to the Calgary Hitmen on Wednesday and then take to the road on Friday for a game in Regina against the Pats. The Medicine Hat Tigers visit the Art Hauser Centre on Saturday to complete the hectic week…Go to www.princealbertdailyherald.com to see a photo slideshow of action from Saturday’s game.