The St. Albert Raiders skate into tonight’s showdown against the Lloydminster Bobcats in sole possession of first place in the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League.
The Raiders (15-4-4) bolted past the Bobcats (14-3-5) in the race for the north division pennant with victories of 5-1 in Fort Saskatchewan against the Rangers (4-15-2) Tuesday and 5-4 against the Southside Athletic Club (10-8-4) Thursday at Akinsdale Arena.
Game time between the Raiders and Bobcats is 7 p.m. at the Border City.
“I know everyone is looking forward to that game and we're going to come out flying for it,” said forward Ryan Harrison. “We’ll have to bear down on our own end and make sure we keep them away from the net and keep the puck out.”
If the Raiders hope to expand their lead over the Bobcats to four points, forward Brett Grant believes it's going to be a matter of which team wants it more.
“It's the details. If we do the little things, we can come out with the win this weekend. We're both good teams. It'll be a good matchup. If we take it one step and one period at a time we'll be good,” Grant said.
Head coach Sandro Pisani said diligence in the neutral zone is going to be key, as well as quick puck movement against a team that likes to trap.
“We'll have to move the puck well to beat their penalty kill pressure. It shouldn't be anything that surprises us. We have to come prepared for 60 minutes and not gift wrap two goals like we did [against Southside],” Pisani said.
Thursday’s visitors jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead on goals by Stephane Legault and Ryan Berlin, who both whipped the puck high blocker-side past Raiders’ goalie Liam Liston.
“The first two goals were gifts and we let them in alone two times. Those are breakdowns on certain individuals' part. We weren't prepared as a team and we paid for it early,” Pisani said.
For the first 10 minutes, the Raiders struggled to put two passes together. They settled down as the game wore on, clicking on special teams and going three-for-six on the power play while Southside gave up a shorthanded goal while one-for-seven with the man advantage.
With 35 seconds to go in the first, Grant drove hard to the net and got his stick on the puck to send it home on the power play.
“We didn't have a really good start but after those 10 minutes we really came to play,” he said. “We got a power play goal and it boosted us. We had good composure. We don't fear any team out there. We know if we play our game we'll usually come out with a win.”
Early in the second Grant struck on the power play again as the puck bounced around on a point shot from Nick Walters to tie it 2-2.
“Our special teams are phenomenal when we've come to play,” Grant said. “There have been times where we've struggled but I think we're the best team in the league when we show up.”
Harrison gave the Raiders a 3-2 lead, walking out from behind the line on the power play and tossing a backhand past Kris Drott.
With Spencer Galbraith in the box for high-sticking, Garth Wallin took a chip pass off the boards and broke in alone on Drott. Wallin faked a backhand and dodged Drott's poke-check, slipping the puck in for a 4-2 advantage.
The Raiders went on a five-on-three advantage almost immediately afterwards, but through 1:38 of the power play couldn't get the puck past Drott, who literally used his head to stop the puck late in the frame.
“We moved the puck well. On the five-on-three we were almost unfortunate to not capitalize there. That would probably have given us a three-goal cushion going into the third,” Pisani said. “The power play was effective for us and when you score three, you're doing something right. On the PK side we did very good. Short of that one bouncing off a stick, we did a good job of really pressuring and making them make poor decisions with the puck.”
Marc McCoy pulled Southside to within one with 4:53 to go in the third period, redirecting a shot through Liston's five-hole on the power play. The Raiders could have been pushed back on their heels but Pisani says the team's mental toughness has grown over the season.
“You always think about [momentum shifts] but that's when you have a mentally tough team that understands its part of the game. We need to respond accordingly and for the most part we're thinking about those things and doing well. We're challenging ourselves to be better.”
Harrison restored the two-goal margin for St. Albert, sliding a puck on the ice past Drott's blocker that the Southside netminder.
“Great pass by [Connor] Hoekstra and I just took a quick shot,” Harrison said.
The last game before the Mac’s tournament at Calgary is Sunday against the Red Deer Rebels (12-4-3) at 2:30 p.m. Akinsdale. Last weekend the Rebels doubled St. Albert 4-2 at Red Deer. The loss ended a seven game undefeated streak (six wins and one tie) by the Raiders.
ICE CHIPS: Goaltender Brad Miller is currently out with an upper body injury suffered in Red Deer. Ethan Wood (midget AA Crusaders) played backup on Thursday. Affiliate goalie Mike Brown has also been helping out as well. Liston will be with Team Pacific for the World U17 Hockey Challenge for the duration of the Mac's tournament, which begins Dec. 26.