Red Deer Rebels Grayson Pawlenchuk and Conner Bleackley collide with their goaltender Patrik Bartosack during a Prince Albert Raider drive to the net by Raider Jayden Hart during first period action at the Centrium Tuesday. Photo by Jeff Stokoe/Red Deer Advocate
The Prince Albert Raiders are heading to the playoffs.
In a winner-take-all tilt for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot, the Raiders triumphed 5-3 over the Red Deer Rebels at the Enmax Centrium on Tuesday, punching their ticket to the post-season.
To get to this point the Raiders were forced to come flying down the stretch, winning six of their last 10 regular season games to clinch the one-game playoff with the Rebels.
Raiders GM Bruno Campese said the Raiders success coming down the stretch was simply a matter of the roster he's built finally finding its stride.
"The guys we made moves for have really come through in a big way," Campese said. "Sometimes it takes some time to get the chemistry going and I just think the guys are coming together at the right time."
With both team's struggling to generate solid scoring chances in the early going, centre Jayden Hart opened things up, putting the Raiders on the board just over seven minutes into the opening period with a cross-crease pass from left wing Calder Brooks.
The Rebels evened things up midway through the first period as centre Wyatt Johnson drove hard to the crease, slipping the puck through the pads of Raiders backstop Nick McBride.
While Rebels import backstop Patrik Bartosak was making his case as to why he is considered one of the league's elite goaltenders, facing 46 shots on Tuesday, the 17-year-old rookie on the other end of the ice was equal to the task.
Campese said he was thoroughly impressed with not only McBride, but the Raiders full contingent of young guns.
"For a kid to be put in that situation and come through the way he did, it was outstanding," Campese said of McBride who turned away 27 shots on Tuesday. "I thought Brendan Guhle may have had his best game as a Raider at this point. We need those young guys to contribute, they are a big part of our team."
McBride turned away 12 shots in the first period, including a big pad save in the frame's final minute to carry a 1-1 stalemate into the second frame.
After Raiders defenceman Josh Morrissey whiffed on the puck in the Rebels zone, left wing Evan Polei took it the other way on a breakaway, beating McBride glove side to put the Rebels ahead 2-1 just under eight minutes into the second period.
With McBride standing on his head, the Raiders evened things up as centre Reid Gardiner broke free to snipe a game-tying marker over Bartosak's glove.
Finishing the season as the league's leader in saves, slipping one, let alone four, past Bartosak on Tuesday was no easy task.
"He's probably one of the best in the CHL let alone the Western Hockey League," Campese said of the Los Angeles Kings goaltending prospect. "For us to get four by him is a big deal for our club."
Working on their second power play of the game, the Rebels would regain the lead as right wing Rhyse Dieno beat McBride to give his team a 3-2 advantage heading into the third period.
After Bartosak shut the door on a number of strong scoring opportunities early in the third frame, the Raiders were finally afforded their first power play opportunity, opening the door for a pair of quick goals to kick off the period.
Celebrating his 21st birthday in his hometown, Raiders left wing Collin Valcourt tallied his fifth goal in as many games, followed by a go-ahead marker by centre Dakota Conroy just over two minutes later.
Valcourt's power play marker about two and a half minutes into the third period would stand as the game-winner as with 15 seconds remaining, Morrissey chipped the puck into an empty-net to clinch a playoff berth.
Relieved and headed to the playoffs for the second-straight year, Campese said to come back in the third period against a team like Red Deer, is tough.
"Everyone knew what was on the line here and I thought our guys from start to finish played a great game," Campese said. " I thought our team scored some real timely goals, executed extremely well offensively and really shut the door when they needed to."
The Raiders will begin playoff action on Saturday as they take on the Oil Kings at Rexall Place.
RAIDER NOTES: Not dressed for the Raiders on Tuesday were Craig Leverton, Tim Vanstone, call-up Brandan Riddle and Graeme Craig. Craig remains sidelined with an upper-body injury … Tuesday's one-game playoff for a trip to the WHL post-season was the first such game since 2009, when the Raiders fell in overtime to the Oil Kings 2-1. Tuesday's tilt was the fifth tiebreaker game in WHL history. All four previous tiebreaker games were decided by a single goal … On Monday, Valcourt became the second Raider this season to be named the Denny's WHL player of the week. Raiders centre Leon Draisaitl has received the honour twice this season … On Monday the WHL released attendance numbers for the 2014 season. The Raiders saw their attendance average drop to 2,496, 178 less than last season's average of 2,674.