Raiders peaking in playoffs
Midget AAA team plays Lloydminster in north final after upsetting Leduc
By: Jeff Hansen
| Posted: Saturday, Mar 08, 2014 06:00 am
The St. Albert Raiders will play a team identical to the one they upset in the midget AAA playoffs when the north division final starts Sunday in Lloydminster.
The Border City Bobcats won a league-high 24 games as co-leaders in the north with the Leduc Oil Kings, who the Raiders knocked off in the division semifinals.
“They’re both equally skilled. They’re very similar in the way they play the game,” said Sandro Pisani, head coach of the fifth-place 18-11-6 Raiders who are 5-2 in the playoffs.
The best-of-five final features the No. 1 defensive team in the north (Raiders averaged 2.22 goals against) and the league’s highest-scoring team (Bobcats averaged 4.05 goals per game).
“They’ve got some smaller, quicker 15-year-olds that are high-end – 15-year-olds that are very dangerous off the rush so we’re going to have to be prepared for that skill. We definitely don’t want to get into a game where we’re racing up and down the ice because that would definitely favour them,” Pisani said. “They’re a very well coached team and their specialty teams are very good too.”
In January the Bobcats blanked the Raiders 4-0 in St. Albert and eight days later won 5-3 home.
“We have to play a harder, tougher game than them. We’re going to have to be disciplined and play our style of game. If we do that it we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to have success,” Pisani said.
The Raiders were built for the playoffs with a defensive foundation that is structurally sound.
“Obviously goaltending plays a big part in that and we’re fortunate that we have two strong goaltenders (Pat Dea and Pat Gora), but we do play a certain style of team defence,” said Pisani of the team’s 1.65 GAA in the playoffs. “We like to defend in numbers and we’re willing to get into shooting lanes and we’re willing to block shots. Our compete level in the defensive zone is very, very high and our penalty kill has been tremendous all year so you factor in those few things and it gives you a pretty good goals-against average.”
An offence by committee makes every game for the Raiders a low-scoring affair.
“The one thing we’ve learned in the playoffs it’s going to be a one goal game,” Pisani said. “If you look back on the year we probably played in the most one goal games throughout the league (12, plus five in playoffs) so it’s not foreign to us playing a 1-1 game or a 2-1 game or a 3-2 game. That’s what we’re accustomed to. We’ve kind of programmed ourselves that way through October, November and December. We had some tough months but I think that adversity kind of made us a better hockey team and a tighter hockey team.”
The Raiders buckled down defensively Wednesday in game four against Leduc to finish off the best-of-five series with a 2-1 victory at Akinsdale Arena. They were outshot 11-6 in the first period as the teams exchanged goals and 27-24 overall.
Wyatt Williams opened the scoring and early in the third Ethan Lazaro converted a set-up by captain Jason Miller for the series winner. It was Lazaro’s first playoff goal after leading the team in scoring with 14 goals and 29 points in 35 games.
Dea (5-2, 1.65 GAA) started his seventh consecutive playoff game.
“We had to play with a sense of urgency. We knew they were going to come out hard and credit to them: in the first period they were the dominant team but we seemed to find our legs and we seemed to get more confidence as the game went on. It was a 1-1 hockey game so knew we had an opportunity to take advantage of that,” said Pisani of the team’s third win in a row after losing the series opener 3-2 in overtime in Leduc.
A dominating 3-0 decision in game two turned the team’s playoff fortunes around.
“It was a really, really strong performance in our barn and I think that kind of took a little bit of wind out of their sails and we just seemed to get more confidence after that,” Pisani said. “Even when we were down 2-0 in game three in Leduc there was just a sense of calm on our bench and I just felt at that point we were going to win the hockey game and sure enough we responded with three goals (by Taylor Lotoski in the second and Kole Bryks and Conner Luken in the third). It was a great effort on our part. We knew we had to win one out there and the kids responded with a tremendous hockey game.”
The second north final in three years for the Raiders kicks off Sunday on the road at 4:30 p.m.
Game two is 7:45 p.m. Wednesday at Akinsdale and game three is 6:30 p.m. Saturday in Lloydminster.
If needed, game four is March 17 at 6:45 p.m. at Akinsdale and game five is March 19 at 7:30 p.m. in Lloydminster.
The winner of the Joe Cherrington Memorial Trophy will challenge the Red Deer Chiefs or Calgary Buffaloes for provincial honours. The sixth and last north title for the Raiders was 2012.
The Raiders skate into the series with a 10-2-3 record in their last 15 league and playoff games combined.
Pisani believes the Raiders have competed with a chip on their shoulder after failing to qualify for the Mac’s tournament in Calgary.
“Not going to the Mac’s kind of opened some of the kids’ eyes. They were saying people think we’re not good enough to play at this level and I think the kids have rallied around that. Now it’s kind of like we can do this and we’ll show everybody we can do this,” he said. “They were disappointed not going to the Mac’s and I was real honest with the group: we just weren't good enough at the time to be there but we can be the team in the playoffs that can be there at the end but that will be up to us to follow the blueprint.”