Thursday, 9 March 2017

Raiders full of potential

Parker Kelly celebrates scoring a goal for the Raiders.
    The Prince Albert Raiders might see better days sooner than later.
    Here is hoping they don’t abandon their rebuilding plan.
    Last season, optimism was high in “Hockey Town North” after the Raiders finished second in the WHL’s East Division with a 38-26-7-1 mark. Their campaign came to an end in the first round of the playoffs, when the Moose Jaw Warriors took a best-of-seven opening round series 4-1.
    The 2015-16 campaign marked the third time since 2005 the Raiders finished with a winning record. There was hope locally the “Green and Gold” could extend the success of that season into something more.
    At the start of this season, the Raiders stumbled out of the gate. On top of slow start, overage winger Reid Gardiner, who led the Raiders in scoring last season with 43 goals and 49 assists, stuck for the first half of the current campaign in the professional ranks with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League.
Ian Scott has impressed playing goal for the Raiders.
    With those developments, the Raiders elected to go young and build for future seasons. Currently, their roster contains three players in their 16-year-old years, eight in their 17-year-old years and eight in their 18-year-old years.
    The Raiders have taken their lumps, which is shown by the fact they have the second worst record in the WHL at 18-42-5-2. With that said, the rebuild is already showing some results as the Raiders are 10-8-2 over their last 20 games. Actually, they are the team you don’t want to play right now, because they can play spoiler for those clubs that are battling for a playoff spot or post-season positioning.
    On Tuesday night at the Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert, you could see the Raiders are coming around. They dropped a 4-2 decision to the visiting Swift Current Broncos in what was a very good hockey game.
Winger Cole Fonstad has a big upside for the Raiders.
    The two teams were locked in a 2-2 draw in a spirited back-and-forth affair going into the final minute of the third period. Broncos winger Tyler Steenbergen scored the winner with 57.9 seconds to play in the third, and the visitors added an empty-net goal to seal the final outcome.
    In defeat, the Raider showed off a lot of good signs. First, goaltender Ian Scott, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 168 pounds, showed he could be something special stopping 30-of-33 shots fired his way.
    Scott, who is in his 17-year-old season, has made a lot of hard saves all season and turned heads when the Raiders were in their worst downswings.
    The Calgary product is rated second among all North American goaltenders in the midterm rankings released by NHL Central Scouting just pass the middle of January.
    Winger Parker Kelly, who is also in his 17-year-old campaign, potted both Raiders goals and is two goals shy of the 20-goal mark.
Czech product Simon Stransky leads the Raiders in scoring.
    Wingers Cole Fonstad and Spencer Moe, who are both in their 16-year-old seasons, had a lot of spirited shifts. You wonder how much better they will be with one or two off-seasons of training under their belts to get stronger and faster.
    Besides those young players, the Raiders could potentially return Czech winger Simon Stransky for two more seasons.
    On a more veteran Raiders team as a rookie last season, Stransky had 19 goals and 43 assists in 62 regular season games. He leads the Raiders in scoring this season with 19 goals and 25 assists in 52 regular season games.
    The defensive pairing of Zack Hayes and Max Martin looks like a solid one with both players in their 17-year-old seasons.
    Hayes, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 212 pounds, is rated 152nd among North American skates in the NHL Central Scouting midterm rankings.
Brayden Pachal has gained an increased role on the Raiders blue-line.
    Actually, the Raiders have a nice base on the blue-line of four players in their 17-year-old seasons and two in their 18-year-old years that they could potentially progress along to be a very tough unit.
    While the announced attendance on Tuesday was 1,886 with a lot of visible no-shows due to bad weather, those that came created a pretty good atmosphere in the building.
    Prince Albert has a solid general manager in Curtis Hunt, who has had a long association with the WHL. The players are already starting to play a nice structured team game under veteran head coach Marc Habscheid and veteran associate coach Dave Manson.
    Basically, the Raiders need to stick to the plan. While they are playing spoiler to wrap up this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they became a force next season.
    NOTE - The Raiders will host a special pre-game ceremony before their match against the Brandon Wheat Kings on 7 p.m. Friday at the Art Hauser Centre. The NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs will be delivering the original banner that hung in the Air Canada Centre honouring Johnny Bower to his hometown of Prince Albert.
    During the NHL’s opening night this season, the Maple Leafs unveiled new banners that now hang in their rink honouring 18 of their former players who have had their numbers retired. The originals are being delivered to each player’s hometown. Bower’s is the 10th banner to be delivered as part of the tour, and it will be presented by Maple Leafs alum Ron Ellis. 

Blades riding high after impressive road wins

Centre Jesse Shynkaruk hit the 30-goal mark with the Blades.
    The Saskatoon Blades have jacked things up in their playoff push.
    After two big wins on a mini two-game road swing, excitement about the possibility of the Blades making the post-season for the first time since 2013 has to be at a big high. On Tuesday, the Blades rolled into Red Deer and downed the host Rebels 2-1 in overtime.
    Overage centre Jesse Shynkaruk potted both of Saskatoon’s goals to give him his first 30-goal campaign of his WHL career that spans four seasons. Netminder Logan Flodell made 35 stops to pick up the win in the Blades goal.
    That victory set the stage for a dream night on Wednesday in Calgary. Playing the host Hitmen in a contest that was shown live on Shaw, the Blades exploded out to a 6-0 lead and closed the contest out with an impressive 6-2 victory.
    Those wins allowed the Blades to improve to 27-31-7-2 and vault past the Hitmen for eighth overall in the WHL’s Eastern Conference and hold the conference’s second wildcard berth for the post-season. The Hitmen fell to 25-31-8-2 to sit three points behind the Blades in the standings with a game in hand.
Kirby Dach had a big goal against the Hitmen.
    The Blades victory on Wednesday impressed on a number of fronts. First, the Blades took advantage of the fact the Hitmen elected to start netminder Cody Porter, who hadn’t played since Jan. 6 due to an upper body injury.
    Porter looked rusty and was pulled after giving up four goals on 13 shots. Two of those goals against were the result of strong hustle from the Blades combined with rust from Porter.
    Saskatoon’s first goal came at the 5:08 mark of the opening frame, when Porter was a bit careless playing the puck behind his own goal. Centre Kirby Dach, who the Blades selected second overall in last year’s WHL Bantam Draft, stole the puck from Porter and quickly potted the game’s first tally into an empty cage.
    The Blades fourth goal of the contest that chased Porter was almost carbon copy of their first tally, but winger Josh Paterson made the steal and score this time. To add insult to injury, Paterson’s goal was a short-handed marker.
    While the Blades have won most of their games this season with hard work and grit, Wednesday’s contest provided the rare chance to see how they would react to playing with a huge lead. When Paterson scored to put them up 4-0, there was still 7:33 to play in the second period.
    For a moment, you had to wonder how the Blades would react to holding such a big edge. Could they keep playing hard to finish the game off, or would they go into a shell thinking the game is over and let Calgary back into the contest?
Logan Flodell backstopped the Blades to two big wins.
    The “Double Blue” proceeded to finish off the win. They scored twice in the third to build a 6-0, and Calgary responded with a pair of tallies in garbage time.
    Flodell, who has been sensational all season, had a more quiet night making 16 saves to pick up the win in goal.
    With five games remaining on their schedule, the Blades are so close to a post-season berth they can almost taste it. Going into their second last home game on Friday when they host the Swift Current Broncos (35-21-4-6) at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre, you have to think there has to be a little more excitement among the locals in Saskatoon about the Blades playoff push.
    You can bet the steady diehards that are at each and every game will be gitty. The confidence in the Blades dressing room has to be at an all-time high too. You almost wish they could drop the puck for the upcoming game with the Broncos right at this very moment.

Superstition of trophy touching is stupid

Brennan Yadlowski, right, avoids touching the Dr. W.G. Hardy Trophy.
    The University of Alberta Golden Bears men’s hockey team raised a few eyebrows from anyone that remained at the ancient Rutherford Rink on Sunday night, when the players decided to avoid touching the Dr. W.G. Hardy Trophy.
    That night, the Golden Bears downed the host University of Saskatchewan Huskies 6-3 in Game 3 of the best-of-three Canada West championship series to take the set 2-1. The U of A captains accepted the Canada West championship banner, but captain Brennan Yadlowski wouldn’t touch the Canada West championship trophy. He posed for a picture with presenter Merlis Belsher.
    The Golden Bears were mimicking a superstition that has existed in the NHL for years, where team members avoid touching the conference championship trophies to show their goal is to capture the Stanley Cup.
    In the WHL, teams often avoid touching the conference championship trophy, but they will still parade around the rink with the WHL championship trophy, the Ed Chynoweth Cup, despite earning a berth to the Memorial Cup championship tournament.
    U of A has won the Canada West championship 14 times in the last 17 years, so the Golden Bears players can feel superstitious if they want. They go to the University Cup national championship tournament almost on an annual basis and have won the U Sports national title 15 times in their history.
    Still, I think electing to not touch the Canada West championship trophy is stupid. Canada West is a good league, and it is always hard to win the conference title. You should take full joy in winning your league.
    On top of that, university national championship tournaments are a different beast. This will be the third straight year in U Sports where both the men’s and women’s national championship hockey tournaments will be decided in an elite-eight single elimination format.
    The elite-eight format is built to allow for upsets, so a great hockey team can be done in a squad with a hot goalie and a slick goal scorer. At least in a best-of-three series, you have the leeway to have a bad game or lose a fluke game.
    I still say touch the conference championship trophy. Sidney Crosby does it, and he has two Stanley Cup rings.

Follow Drinnan’s Taking Note blog

    For those looking to a one stop shop blog to catch a roundup of all the major news involving the WHL, you should check out Gregg Drinnan’s Taking Note blog.
    Drinnan, who is a former sports editor with the Regina Leader-Post and the defunct Kamloops Daily News, has covered the WHL since the early 1970s and his insight and knowledge of the league can’t be matched anywhere. His blog can be found right here.

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