It’s looking like the Mac’s Cup all over again for the St. Albert Nektar Raiders.
The winning template at the Mac’s is also the same strategy in the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League playoffs for the tournament champions.
“Winning Mac’s really showed us and the league that we’re a contender and we’re not a pushover team and if we can stick to our game plan and play the Raider way then good things happen,” said Brady Nicholas, a left-winger/centre with the first-place north division team.
In the division semifinals, the Raiders punted the fourth-place Canadian Athletic Club to the sidelines with a three-game sweep by scores of 4-2, 5-1 and 4-1.
“That's kind of been what we’ve been doing this whole year and that’s the Raider way of playing. It’s hard hitting, getting pucks on net, getting pucks deep and hopefully get the W,” Nicholas said.
The result set the stage for the best-of-five north final against the Fort Saskatchewan Rangers.
Game one was played Friday in St. Albert and the score was unavailable at press time.
Game two is 5:30 p.m. Sunday at JRC Arena and game three is 7:45 p.m. Wednesday at Akinsdale Arena.
If needed, game four is 7:45 p.m. Friday at JRC and game five is 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Akinsdale.
The winner plays the Calgary Buffaloes or Calgary Royals in the best-of-five AMHL final and the provincial champion hosts the best-of-three Pacific Region national qualifier for the Telus Cup, April 22 to 28 at Thunder Bay, Ont.
Two points separated the Raiders (19-11-4, 116 GF/92 GA) and Rangers (19-13-2, 106 GF/94 GA) in the north standings.
“They’re a fast and skilled team. We know they've got a lot of compete. It’s a really good squad,” Nicholas said. “They were in first place for the majority of the season. They’re good offensively. They’re good defensively. They've got good goaltending. They can put the puck in the net.
“We just have to stick to our game. Get pucks deep, play hard and just outwork them really.”
Both teams had first-round byes and in the semifinals the Rangers rattled off wins of 4-3 in overtime, 3-0 and 4-1 against the third-place Grande Peace Storm (17-13-4).
The season series featured the visitors posting victories of 3-0 Rangers Nov. 11 and 5-1 Raiders Jan. 6.
“They’re a fairly strong team,” said netminder Evan Fradette. “Sebastian Cossa (3-0, 1.31 GAA in the playoffs) is going to be a pretty good goalie for them so we have to get him moving and just get a couple by him.
"If we put in our effort we can easily beat their defence.”
In the first tilt in St. Albert, Fradette gave up two goals in the last five minutes of the first period while stopping 15 shots before Andreai Proctor-Ramirez took over the net duties to start the middle frame. Ross Hawryluk of the Rangers faced 32 shots for the shutout.
“They've got some pretty good forwards,” Fradette said. “We’ve got to play a little bit more safe, not too risky, and just make some simple plays and the forwards will have the momentum.”
In the rematch, Cossa (6-5-2, 3.01 GAA) was replaced after two periods after giving up four goals on 22 shots.
Proctor-Ramirez went the distance with 34 saves as the Raiders pulled to within two points of the Rangers for the division lead and the next week they overtook the Fort for sole possession of first place.
Fradette (8-5-1, 2.35 GAA) missed the game as a call-up by the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League following his performance as the tournament’s MVP and top netminder at the Mac’s with six wins in six starts.
“It’s a huge honour but obviously I couldn't have done any of that without my whole team. They came out and played very well in front of me,” said the second-year Raider. “Obviously it feels pretty good. I was really happy with it. It was really exciting when I got the awards.”
Fradette, who turns 18 on Sunday, backstopped the Raiders past the CAC by stopping 77 of 81 shots in the three wins for a 1.33 GAA and .951 save percentage.
“It was just another game in my eyes. I just came out and worked my hardest, tried to play my best and do the best I could for the team and it worked out,” said the Grade 12 Paul Kane High School student. “It was the same approach to playoffs as the Mac’s. It’s just another game and a new team and everybody went into it the same way. Everybody put in the same effort. We all came out hard and it paid off.”
The Raiders are trending in the right direction after capturing the first north pennant since 2010 as co-recipients with Lloydminster Bobcats at 23-6-6 and 2007 as the No. 1 team at 17-11-8.
The last provincial final was 2012 and the only St. Albert midget AAA team to win provincials was the 1990 Raiders coached by John Thompson.
“It’s a great time to be a Raider. There’s lots of energy. We're getting support from people at school and people in the community. It's a good time and we just want to go out here and leave a good legacy and give it all we've got,” said Nicholas, 18.
The third-year Raider (16-30-46 in 81 games) recorded one goal and three assists against the CAC skating alongside captain Erik Boers and Logan McKinley, who filled in for the injured Eric Perneel on the top line after the team’s leading scorer in the regular season with 21 goals and 38 points was on the receiving end of a hit from behind by Kevin Bachul with six seconds left in the opening period of game one. Bachul received a five-minute major and game misconduct and was suspended for game two.
Nicholas, the Mac’s playoff MVP who potted a rebound for the 4-3 game winner against the Lethbridge Hurricanes with three minutes left in the final, returned from a nine-game WHL stint with the Saskatoon Blades to give the Raiders an offensive boost with 15 assists and 18 points in 14 games.
“Obviously there has been ups and downs coming back with only a third of the season left but I've been having lots of fun. The guys in the room are great. The energy is unbelievable. It’s been a riot. It’s a good last midget AAA season,” said the Grade 12 St. Albert Catholic High School student.