Prior to Saturday’s regular-season finale against the Saskatoon Blades, the Prince Albert Raiders knew they were heading to Alberta to open the Western Hockey League playoffs this week - they just didn’t know where.
That question was answered when the Raiders forced overtime and was settled even further when they beat the Blades 4-3 in a shootout before a second straight sellout of 3,366 fans at the Art Hauser Centre.
The outcome guaranteed Prince Albert a fifth-place finish in the Eastern Conference standings and set up a date with the Red Deer Rebels in the best-of-seven opening round, which gets under way on Friday. It will be the Raiders first playoff appearance in two years and just their second in the past six campaigns.
A regulation-time loss would have dropped Prince Albert into sixth place and pitted them against the Calgary Hitmen, a team that the Swift Current Broncos will now have to deal with.
Saturday’s win was the second extra-time victory in as many nights for Prince Albert over the Blades as the Raiders also prevailed 6-5 in overtime on Friday. Prior to those two victories, the Raiders had lost six in a row and eight of their last 10 to fall from the No. 2 seed in the conference into the battle for the fifth-place finish.
After a scoreless opening period, Saskatoon jumped into a 2-0 advantage on a pair of Josh Nicholls tallies, but Anthony Bardaro collected his third goal of the weekend to cut the deficit in half.
Brenden Walker restored the Blades’ lead to two goals early in the final frame before Mark McNeill, with a short-handed effort, and Evan Morden, with just his second goal of the season, brought the game on even terms and gave the Raiders the much-needed single point to confirm their playoff positioning.
A five-minute overtime session produced no winner so a shootout was required and it was Bardaro once again emptying the Raider bench when he beat Saskatoon goaltender Alex Moodie in the third round of the shootout. Leon Draisaitl, for the Raiders, and Matej Stransky for the Blades had scored on earlier attempts.
Luke Siemens made 45 saves in the Prince Albert net to add to his Raider record for saves in a season (1890) that he established on Friday. Siemens, who was playing his final regular-season game at the junior level, was appearing in his 66th game of the year, another Raider franchise record. Siemens had equalled the club mark for shutouts in a season – six – last month.
Also playing their final regular-season game for the Raiders were Bardaro and Davis Vandane. The three overage players, along with captain Mark McNeill, will be hoping for an extended playoff run before they say farewell to their time in Prince Albert. McNeill, a first-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011, is not expected to be back in a Raider uniform next year as a 20-year-old. In fact, he will likely turn professional as soon as Prince Albert’s season is over, which the Raiders and their fans hope won’t be for a while yet.
RAIDER NOTES: Not dressed for Prince Albert on Saturday were Riley Guenther, Joey Santucci and Tim Vanstone – the same three who missed Friday’s tilt as healthy scratches…Prince Albert finished the season with 37 victories, the most since 2003-04 when they had 38 and second most since 1999 when they had 45…Although the Raiders struggled down the stretch and finished behind the Blades in the East Division standings, they can take some solace in the fact that they won the season series with Saskatoon by going 5-2-0-1…The Raiders and Rebels have met four times this year with the home team winning all four. Prince Albert’s victories at the AHC required extra time – 5-4 shootout win in October and 4-3 overtime decision in January – while the Rebels won both contests in Red Deer rather handily – 6-1 and 4-2. The first two games are Friday and Saturday in Alberta with the series switching back to Prince Albert on Tuesday Mar. 26 and Wednesday Mar. 27.