The St. Albert Nektar Raiders refuse to rest on their laurels as the No. 1 team in the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League at the Christmas break.
“It feels good, but we’re never really satisfied. We’re always trying to get better to stay on top,” said defenceman Breck McKinley of the 18-1-3 Raiders. “We outwork every team we play. We get pucks deep and keep hounding on them. We play heavy hockey and no team can handle it.”
The 10th win during an 11-game unbeaten streak was Sunday’s 4-1 decision against the Calgary Flames (12-7-5) at Jarome Iginla Arena.
The day before against the visiting Lethbridge Hurricanes (12-8-3), the Raiders battled back from a two-goal deficit to salvage a 4-4 draw after winning nine straight since the 2-1 loss to the Sherwood Park Kings (6-11-5) Nov. 6 in St. Albert
“We picked it up today and we showed what our team is made of. (The tie) was a little bit of a setback, but we brought it back in a big way,” said left-winger Jaxon Dube of the bounce-back effort against the Flames. “It’s a good start going into the Mac’s.”
The 42nd annual Mac’s Midget AAA World Invitational Tournament in Calgary begins 9 a.m. Friday for the defending champions in pool play against the Calgary Royals at Max Bell Centre.
The Raiders will also be challenged by the Airdrie Bisons on Saturday at 11:45 a.m. at Father David Bauer Arena, Cariboo Cougars on Sunday at 8 p.m. at Father David Bauer and the Moose Jaw Warriors on Monday at 12:30 p.m. at Flames Community Arena.
The top teams in the five pools and three wild cards qualify for the quarter-finals. The final is Jan. 1 at the Saddledome.
“It’s obviously going to be a lot higher pace there because it’s such a good tournament so we’ve got to keep on playing like we’re playing right now,” McKinley said.
At last year's Mac's, the Raiders gutted out six wins in seven games and five victories were decided by one goal with late-game heroics.
The acts of resilience included the 3-2 quarter-final in double overtime against the Canadian Athletic Club and the 4-3 final against Lethbridge.
The only loss was 4-3 in pool play against the Vancouver NE Chiefs.
“It’s a hard tournament to play in. It’s a constant grind of just staying focused and if we do the right things we can succeed in that tournament. We have that type of team to do it. We’re hard to play against. We’re big and we just don't stop competing,” said Dube, a returning player along with captain Mathieu Gautier, defenceman Tye Pedersen and netminder Andreai Proctor-Ramirez from the first St. Albert male team to win the Mac’s Cup.
The only other St. Albert team to reach the men’s final was the 1990 Eagle Raiders.
“We have such a great group that we could repeat what we did last year,” said Dube, 16, a Grade 11 Paul Kane High School student.
The weekend homestand started off with a bit of a hiccup as Lethbridge struck four times in the opening 11 minutes of the second period on the strength of two power-play goals 43 seconds part with Maddux Nollski serving a five-minute boarding major.
Shots were 15 apiece in the period as Carson Ironside was replaced by Proctor-Ramirez with the Raiders down 4-2.
Ronin Pusch made it a one-goal contest with 7:47 to go in the second and Evan Forrest potted the equalizer on the power play with 4:21 left in the fame.
Matthew Reidy and Kyle Norman also notched singles and Pedersen finished with two assists.
Pedersen leads all AMHL defencemen in assists with 14 and points with 18, which is second best on the Raiders.
The final shot count was 40-30 for the Raiders as Proctor-Ramirez came off the bench to make 15 saves.
“We came out a little bit slow. Our PK was struggling a little bit and they got some (power-play goals) and we had to rally back and get a few to get the tie,” McKinley said.
Against the Flames, Pusch knotted the score on the power play with his fifth goal in three games and ninth of the season.
The first of two goals by Gautier was potted on the penalty kill to break a 1-1 tie in the middle frame.
Gautier leads the Raiders in scoring with 24 points.
Dube produced his team-leading 10th goal four minutes into the third.
Norman also chipped in with two assists.
Proctor-Ramirez, the AMHL’s top puck stopper with an 11-1-2 record, 0.97 GAA, .958 save percentage and four shutouts, faced 22 shots while the Raiders were credited with 33.
The Raiders were without the services of Nollski and Drew Kuzma, a pair of forwards, because of suspensions stemming from game misconducts against Lethbridge.
“We had a little bit of a slow start, but after that we were pretty good. We were all over them. They couldn't really handle us,” said McKinley of beating the Flames.
The Grade 11 St. Albert Catholic High School student is tied for second behind Pederson in scoring among AMHL defencemen with 15 points.
McKinley, 16, joined the Raiders at the Jan. 10 trade/roster freeze deadline from the St. Albert Flyers in the Alberta Minor Midget AAA Hockey League to replace Robert Kincaid, who was called up and signed for the rest of the 2018/19 season by the Camrose Kodiaks in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
The Raiders have 10 games remaining before the playoffs and the first one after the Mac’s is Jan. 4 against the host Red Deer Chiefs (11-8-3) at 4:45 p.m.