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Raiders shift into playoff drive

Midget AAA team has 12 games left in league play

By: Jeff Hansen

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Jan 08, 2014 06:00 am

DISTURBER - Matt McNeil of the St. Albert Raiders crashes the crease against the Red Deer Chiefs in the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League. The Raiders (12-8-3) play their first game in the New Year tonight against the Southside Athletic Club at 7:45 p.m. at Akinsdale Arena.
DISTURBER - Matt McNeil of the St. Albert Raiders crashes the crease against the Red Deer Chiefs in the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League. The Raiders (12-8-3) play their first game in the New Year tonight against the Southside Athletic Club at 7:45 p.m. at Akinsdale Arena.
APRIL BARTLETT/St. Albert Gazette

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The St. Albert Raiders are shifting into overdrive to gain traction in the playoff race after spinning their wheels to start the season.

The Raiders (12-8-3) have 12 games remaining to secure a post-season berth in the Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League.

“We’re trying to ramp up for the second part of the season. The first part we were kind of mediocre,” said right-winger Matt McNeil.

The top six teams in the north make the playoffs and the Raiders and Southside Athletic Club (12-10-3) are tied for fifth place. They hold a seven-point advantage over the seventh-place Grande Prairie Storm (8-11-4), but trail the fifth-place Lloydminster Bobcats (16-8-2) by seven.

The first game for the Raiders in the new year is tonight against Southside at 7:45 p.m. at Akinsdale Arena.

“It’s a huge game. We want to get up on them,” McNeil said.

The Raiders skated into the Christmas break with points in five of their last six games while going 4-1-1 with two shutout victories.

“It was good for our confidence. We were pretty excited after playing those games,” said centre Conner Lukan.

The team’s last game was the 6-4 triumph against the first-place Sherwood Park Kings (16-4-6) Dec. 21 in the Park.

“It was a good way to go into the break. Now we’ve just got to keep pushing and get wins and stay in a playoff spot,” McNeil said. “The goal for the second half of the season is to continue the streak we’re on right now.”

McNeil’s fifth goal of the season snapped a 4-4 deadlock against the Kings with 13:56 to play.

Taylor Lotoski scored into an empty net to clinch the team’s second win in three games.

Parker AuCoin, Thomas Friesen, Jason Miller and Ethan Lazaro also tallied. AuCoin and Miller finished with three points apiece.

The Raiders killed off a massive amount of penalties while being outshot 43-20. In net was Pat Dea (8-3-2, 2.05 GAA, .943 save percentage).

“That was a big win. They’re probably the best team we’ve played so far,” Lukan said. “It was definitely the best game we played.”

Six goals in a game was a major accomplishment for the offensively-challenged Raiders. The lowest-scoring team in the north averaged 2.6 goals in 23 games. Lazaro is the only Raider in double digits in goals with 10 as their leading point producer with 22 in 23 games.

“We’ve got to bring our offence more to the game,” said Lukan, who ranks third in team scoring with 12 points in 22 games. “We’re more of a hard-working team than skill but when we’re playing together we can bring our skill into it.”

The Raiders are focused on attacking the net with ferocity as the regular season winds down.

“Shots and bodies. That’s what our coach preaches,” said McNeil, the team’s fourth-highest scorer with 11 points in 22 games. “We’ve struggled getting to the net. We’re in their zone lots, but we can’t get the puck to the net a lot of the time. We’re lacking in shots. (Teams) would get 30 on us and we struggled to get 20 on them.”

The lack of offensive punch is reflected in the team’s record.

“We lost a lot of one goal games (five), which doesn’t make our record look good,” McNeil said. “It’s misleading in a way because I think we’re a better team than what our record says. Hopefully we can prove that in the second half of the season.”

Defensively the Raiders are No. 1 in the north and second overall in the AMHL with 52 goals against. The netminding duo of Dea and Pat Gora (4-5-1, 2.43 GAA, .922 save percentage) gives the team a chance to win every game.

“Defensively we’re strong,” McNeil said.

Gora and forwards Miller and Harrison Klein are the only returning Raiders from last year’s second-place 19-9-6 finishers in the north as division semifinalists.

“We’re gelling better now as we find line (combinations) and bodies on the power play and PK. We have a lot of guys that are able to do it, we just need to start doing it more than we did in the first half,” said McNeil, 17.

The Grade 12 St. Peter The Apostle High School student played two games for the Raiders last season as a midget AA affiliate with the Spruce Grove PAC Saints. He racked up a team-leading 37 goals, 59 points and 103 penalty minutes in only 28 games for the Saints before earning fulltime status with the Raiders.

“I’ve been trying to get better and better every game. Hopefully I can keep bringing it up for the playoffs.”

Lukan, 16, is another Spruce Grove product who joined the Raiders after compiling a team-high 17 goals and 31 points in 26 games for the midget 15 Saints.

His five goals are tied for the third most on the Raiders.

“I started off a little bit slow but I started to pick it up. Other than my two suspensions it’s been going good,” said the Grade 11 Spruce Grove Composite High School student.

This weekend the Raiders host Lloydminster on Saturday and the Calgary Northstars (3-20-4) on Sunday. Game times are 1:15 p.m.


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