Saturday, 30 March 2019

The dream is alive like in 1985 right now in P.A.

The Raiders celebrate a goal in their post-season sweep of the Rebels.
    For the Prince Albert Raiders and their faithful, this has been the season they have long been waiting for.
    Since the Raiders last made the WHL Eastern Conference championship series as part of “The Run” in 2005, fans in “Hockey Town North” have been anxiously waiting for their team to once again be good enough to get to that point in the post-season. Fans in P.A. have dreamed about the chance to cheer on a Raiders team that carried a romanticized aura from the era of legendary head coach and general manager Terry Simpson in the 1970s and 1980s.
    That type of dream seemed to be way too far out of reach for the most optimist supporter of the team.
    Over the past two seasons, people in Prince Albert watched a core of likeable and personable players grow with the Raiders under the watch of head coach Marc Habscheid and general manager Curtis Hunt.
Brett Leason, right, was big in the Raiders win in Game 4 versus the Rebels.
    Both Habscheid and Hunt are popular with the citizens of Prince Albert, who hoped the hand of fate wouldn’t step in and wreak the hard work of this veteran hockey duo.
    Then something special happened.
    The Raiders jumped out to a 7-0 start this season. They returned home from an early October road trip sporting an 8-1 record to host the Red Deer Rebels on Oct. 13 for their fourth home game of the 2018-19 campaign.
    People in Prince Albert realized this was it. This group of boys they watched grow up was going to be special on this Raiders team.
    The faithful returned to the Art Hauser Centre in droves. They were ready to show the rest of Canada that the song in Prince Albert is and always will be “Go Raiders Go.”
Ian Scott has been stellar in goal for the Raiders.
    The Raiders beat the Rebels that night 2-1 on a third period goal by Brett Leason, where he banked the puck on a dump in off the boards to himself in perfect shooting position to net the winner. The win came before a standing room crowd of 2,727 spectators at the 2,580 seat Art Hauser Centre.
    The Raiders gift store was busy through most of the contest.
    That became the norm for most of the rest of the season in Prince Albert as the fans took every opportunity to soak in and enjoy the present. The club averaged 2,615 spectators per game for their 34 regular season home dates.
    The Raiders rolled to finish first overall in the WHL with a 54-10-2-2 record and were rated second in the final CHL Top 10 rankings. It marked the second time in team history they finished on top of the overall WHL regular season standings.
The fans have packed the Art Hauser Centre to support the Raiders.
    The only time they posted a better regular season record came when they finished first overall in the 1984-85 campaign with 58 wins, 11 losses and three ties. The Raiders went on to celebrate a Memorial Cup championship in just their third campaign in the major junior ranks.
    This year’s Raiders team carries the aura the club had under Simpson’s guidance during the squad’s time in the junior A ranks in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and in the WHL.
    The Raiders play with great skill and can make finesse plays that lift fans out of their seats. Up front, Leason topped the team in scoring with 36 goals and 53 assists for 89 points.
    Overage centre Noah Gregor had an outstanding year placing second in team scoring with 43 goals and 45 assists for 88 points.
The Raiders have lots of toughness seen here from Justin Nachbaur (#29).
    It seems like anyone on the Raiders four forward lines can put the puck in the net at any given time with Cole Fonstad, Parker Kelly, Dante Hannoun and Sean Montgomery carrying big reputations for offensive prowess.
    They have a sound unit on defence that is also surprisingly mobile. The starting six of captain Brayden Pachal, Max Martin, Jeremy Masella, Zack Hayes, Kaiden Guhle and import Sergei Sapego are arguably one of the best blue-line units the WHL has seen in recent years.
    Prince Albert has received top quality goaltending from 19-year-old veteran Ian Scott, who along with Leason were members of Canada’s last world junior team.
    Overall, this team has the physical toughness that can overwhelm any foe. In other words, opposing players can expect to get a few bumps and bruises from playing the Raiders.
    When the regular season ended, Scott was named the top goaltender for the Eastern Conference, while Habscheid was named the coach of the year for the conference and Hunt claimed executive of the year honours for the conference.
Noah Gregor has had a stellar season for the Raiders.
    In the first round of the playoffs, the Raiders swept away the Red Deer Rebels 4-0 in a best-of-seven first round series. The Rebels posted a 33-29-4-2 record during the regular season and played with heart in the post-season, but were ultimately overwhelmed by the Raiders.
    The two games in Prince Albert saw the Raiders draw 3,093 spectators for their 3-0 victory on March 22 in Game 1 and 3,152 spectators for their 6-4 victory last Saturday in Game 2.
    The biggest bump in the road came during the Game 2 win, when Leason was kicked out of the game in the second period for taking a major penalty for checking from behind. The Raiders felt a major penalty wasn’t warranted as Rebels winger Cameron Hausinger quickly returned for the ensuing power play after taking the hit from Leason.
    Ultimately, Leason was suspended for one game and missed the Raiders 4-2 victory over the Rebels in Game 3 on Tuesday in Red Deer. He returned to make a huge impact in the Raiders series clinching victory in Game 4 in Red Deer on Wednesday.
The Art Hauser Centre faithful salutes the Raiders after their Game 2 win.
    With the Raiders and Rebels tied at 1-1 going into the third period, Leason scored the series winner 58 seconds into the third and added an insurance marker at the 11:27 mark of the frame to put Prince Albert up 3-1. Fonstad scored into an empty net with 3:34 remaining in the third to round out a 4-1 victory for the Raiders.
    Now, the Raiders will take on their archrivals, the Saskatoon Blades, in a best-of-seven WHL Eastern Conference semifinal series. Game 1 of that series is slated for this coming Friday at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre.
    The Blades finished fourth overall in the WHL with a 45-15-8 record and were an honourable mention in the final CHL Top 10 rankings. The Raiders will find that the Blades are a formable test.
    For the fans in Prince Albert, the sight they love the most is when their Raiders send the Blades “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon.”
Brayden Pachal, left, and Parker Kelly do their victory handshake.
    Knocking the Blades out of the playoffs this season will be something Raiders fans will always savour.
    The Raiders and their fans are enjoying every moment in the present, and hopes are high they can go all the way and bring the Memorial Cup back to “Hockey Town North.”
    The impossible dream feels like it can be real this year.

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