Winning the Mac’s Midget AAA World Invitational Tournament was meant to be for the St. Albert Nektar Raiders.
The team of destiny pulled off the incredible feat in Tuesday’s final with another comeback thriller.
Down two goals against the Lethbridge Hurricanes, the never-say-die Raiders capped off the 4-3 victory at the Saddledome with a rebound goal by Brady Nicholas, the playoff MVP, with under four minutes to play.
Evan Fradette, the recipient of the tournament’s MVP and top netminder awards, stopped all 10 shots in the third for a game-high 24 saves for his sixth win in six starts.
After losing last year’s semifinal 1-0 on a third-period goal by the Red Deer Chiefs, the Raiders rattled off three wins in four pool games and in the playoffs ran the table with results of 3-2 in double overtime against the Canadian Athletic Club and 6-3 against the New York Islanders before defeating Lethbridge, the 2018 Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League champion and Telus Cup national bronze medallist.
Jack Redlick, head coach of the first St. Albert male team to win the prestigious Mac’s in the tournament’s 41-year history, summed up the team’s performance in one word.
“Resiliency,” Redlick told the Gazette on Wednesday morning.
“I haven’t seen nothing like it. Every single game was a one-goal game. I know the semifinal we won 6-3, but we scored two empty net goals late. It was a one-goal game down to the final minutes,” he added. “Our group never quit. It was crazy.”
The momentum started snowballing with the game winners by Erik (Captain Clutch) Boers with 11 seconds to play in the tournament opener against the defending champion Regina Pat Canadians and 1:39 remaining against the Okotoks Oilers.
The Raiders were outshot in both of the 2-1 results as Fradette stopped 28 shots in each game.
The third game was the 4-3 loss to the “small, fast and skilled” Vancouver NE Chiefs as the Raiders gassed a 3-0 lead.
“We got a little bit ahead of ourselves in regards to what made us successful and how we played,” Redlick said. “It was a good eye-opener for us. It was exactly what we needed.”
The loss put the Raiders on the ropes, setting the stage for the must-win game against the Calgary Buffaloes for a playoff berth as the top teams in the five pools, plus three wildcards, advanced to the round of eight.
The match was deadlocked at one after 40 minutes as the Buffaloes scored the only goal of the middle frame.
In the second period, “Evan Fradette literally put the boys on his back. We got outshot (27-8) and Evan shut the door and allowed us to regroup and then we clawed our way back,” Redlick said.
The Raiders also shortened their shifts to a lightning-quick 30 seconds.
“Everybody bought into it. Our trainer (Stephen Dienes) would rattle the door every 30 seconds to let the guys know on the ice when they would come off and the next guys would come on. It was an investment for that game and later on in playoffs and it paid off in the third. We had more energy and the Buffs started to die off in regards to their fatigue level,” Redlick said.
Power-play goals by Mathieu Gautier in the third knotted the count at two at 4:14 and at three halfway through the period.
The winner with 49 seconds on the clock confirmed the Raiders were not to be denied.
“Matt Rathbone throws a puck into the offensive zone and it must have hit something on the boards and it literally kicks right out and their goalie went behind the net to play it and it kicks right out in front to Kye Buchanan with a wide open net and he taps it in. It was crazy,” Redlick said. “We felt since game one we have some of those boys that were on that Humboldt bus on our shoulders, especially Hunts (Logan Hunter, who played for Raiders in 2016-17 with Redlick as the head coach). There was an assist from Hunts for sure so that allowed us to move on.
“From that point on we had real confidence in the fact that this is something special.”
The Raiders were outshot 53-28 as the Buffaloes scored against Fradette at even strength in the second and during a penalty shot and on the power play in the third.
Monday’s quarter-final against the CAC was decided in the second overtime period as Tyson Greenway lit the lamp with Brad Adams and Robert Kincaid drawing assists.
The game was scoreless until the third, as Nicholas buried a shot after Fradette sent a long breakout pass to create the scoring chance that made it 1-1 and Noah Kramps tied it at two.
The score remained the same throughout the first 10-minute sudden-death frame before Greenway sealed the deal.
Fradette finished with 26 saves while the Raiders racked up 53 shots.
“The boys just stuck with it and Evan was great again,” Redlick said. “We had our matchups on the back end against their top lines and again it was 30-second shifts. I think it messed with some teams because they were trying to get their matchups and the minute they would get it we would be changing and we had fresh legs and they were scrambling. We found as the game wore on all of a sudden in that third period we had that energy and the other team was starting to lag a little bit.”
That night in the semifinal, “We dominated New York. They were gassed and again we stuck with our 30-second shifts and it was just kind of wave after wave and I think the shot total reflected that,” said Redlick of the 50-19 shot differential, including a 16-6 edge after the first and the Islanders up 2-0.
The Raiders roared back with Eric Perneel finding the back of the net 33 seconds into the second and Carson Henry added the tying goal six minutes later. The period ended in a 3-3 stalemate as Tyson Kowaluk notched the equalizer.
Perneel potted his second of the game 20 seconds into the third and empty netters by Rathbone and Kincaid punched the Raiders’ ticket into the final for the first time since the 1990 Eagle Raiders lost to the Lethbridge Y’s Men.
“We were down 2-0 and the boys rallied back and we had that same feeling again that somebody else was on our shoulders,” Redlick said.
The final pitted Lethbridge (18-3), the AMHL south division leader, against the Raiders (12-8-4), tied for second in the north standings who doubled the Hurricanes 4-2 Nov. 17 In St. Albert.
Lethbridge opened the scoring and Adams, the player of the game for the Raiders with three points, was quick to reply. The period ended 2-1 for Lethbridge and the shots tied at eight apiece.
Down 3-1 in the second, Buchanan scored late in the middle frame as the period ended with the shots 17-13 for Lethbridge.
In the third, Greenway pulled the Raiders even with 11:21 to go with helpers by Jaxon Dube and Adams before Nicholas finished off a strong drive to the net by Boers for the tournament winner.
“The first period we were playing not to make a mistake rather than playing to win,” Redlick said. “In the second period with eight minutes left, we changed on the fly our breakout in the neutral zone forecheck and it kind of hemmed up Lethbridge a little bit.
“And again, throughout whole game no matter what, we stuck with our 30-second shifts so in the third period you could see the fatigue level in Lethbridge. When we scored to tie and you could see Lethbridge was on its heels and we were fresh, we had energy.
“After that goal (by Greenway) we were looking at each other on the bench and we were like, ‘Is this going to happen again?’ So it was only fitting that Brady Nicholas, a third-year who played with Hunts when he was here, scored the winning goal.
“It was a pretty surreal moment.”
Additional coverage of the Raiders at the Mac’s will appear in Saturday’s issue.