This is the last series of the Eastern Conference to get underway. It’s almost fitting with how the last half of the season has gone for the Blades. They’ve known for quite some time they were going to be playing in the postseason eventually, they might as well wait another day compared to everyone else.
This is also my last preview of the Eastern Conference as tonight is the debut of the playoffs.
So here it is:
Saskatoon Blades (1) vs. Prince Albert Raiders (8)
The Blades didn’t have any trouble with the Prince Albert Raiders this season. They won the season series 7-1. Some of the games were closer than the scores showed, and the season series was definitely closer than the 7-1 mark shows. To me, that signifies that the biggest edge the Raiders will have is the mental one. If the Blades have any ounce of cockiness in their game, the Raiders have to be able to get into that void and exploit it. Will that happen? I doubt it. Could it happen? Raider fans better hope so.
The Blades are led by a cast of characters, none of which can really be matched by the Raiders. They have two of the best lines in junior hockey with Hamilton-Schenn-Trask? and Dziurzynski-Viedensky-Nicholls. *The question mark is beside Trask, because he could possibly be slowed by an upper body injury, but we’ll see if he plays tomorrow night. They can also get some punch from the third line, with the fourth line showing that they are more than capable of carrying their weight this year. Saskatoon tied for first in the WHL this year with 310 goals for. Spokane was the only team to match them. That number also dwarfs what the Raiders have been able to muster this year.
The Raiders are led by California-native Jonathan Parker. He had 45 goals and 86 points. Super-sophomore Mark McNeill had 81 points as well. The Raiders actually had 6 20-or-more-goal scorers. But that’s just it, offense hasn’t been this team’s problem. They had 247 goals, 7th best in the conference. Those type of numbers are passable and I’m sure there will be a game or two in this series where they score 4-5 goals in a game. They have that ability, but in order for them to pull off the upset here, they are going to get some further depth scoring. A guy like Charlie Wells or Brandon Herrod has to elevate their game. Their offense shows that they have a few solid candidates for that role. But will that be enough to overcome a hit or miss blueline and some often-questionable goaltending? We will have to wait and see.
The Blades depth is too much for the Raiders to handle here. They are an elite goal scoring team and win this category.
Saskatoon features nice depth on the blueline. They have a veteran top pairing that features a 20 year old Zahn and the eventual top defenseman in the league in Stefan Elliott. They have a 2nd team Eastern All-Star on their 2nd pairing in Duncan Siemens. They just have a very balanced group. If they keep it simple, they will be in great shape. This team’s blueline shows it’s weakness when they over handle the puck and don’t react fast enough. They can be exposed by a strong forecheck on occasion. Saskatoon allowed 213 goals this year , 3rd fewest in the conference.
Prince Albert have a well rounded blueline. I like the size and toughness of their group. Antoine Corbin has one of the hardest shots in the WHL. Rowley is an ok two way defenseman. Bettauer and Yaworski provide more size and depth. But this group is going to have to have some of the best games of their lives in order to handle the Blades offensive group. They allowed 283 goals, the highest number of any team in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Saskatoon features the best offensive defenseman in the series and the best defensive defenseman in the series. That should show you how I feel about this part of the series. Saskatoon simply has a much better blueline core than the Raiders do.
Between The Pipes
The Saskatoon Blades are one of the deepest teams in the Canadian Hockey League, and that fact is emphasized by their goaltending. Steven Stanford won an amazing 40 games this year, 2nd most in the WHL. He also only lost 5 games, that’s the more impressive thing. Adam Morrison has proven to be a capable backup goalie as a veteran 19 year old. His numbers aren’t quite as good as Stanford’s, but the guy has been around the block and will be ready if he’s needed.
The Raiders goaltending got off to a horrendously slow start this year, but it was an area they improved at as the year moved along. Their veteran goalie Jamie Tucker was up and down as the year wore on and actually battled injury down the stretch. But, he’s back and will be counted on to be the man for the Raiders. Eric Williams did a good job spelling Tucker and in my opinion, is definitely the better goalie. But, the 17 year old will likely start this series on the bench, which I can’t really question.
Here’s the teams 4 goalies’ numbers:
Steven Stanford was 40-5 with a 2.78 GAA and a .910 save %. He had 3 shutouts.
Adam Morrison was 16-7-1-2 with a 2.89 GAA and a .901 save %. He had 2 shutouts.
Jamie Tucker was 14-19-1-2 with a 3.87 GAA and an .889 save %. He had 0 shutouts.
Eric Williams was 17-17-1-1 with a 3.71 GAA and an .898 save %. He had 1 shutout.
I give the nod to the Blades in this area of the series but any goalie in this series can steal a game or two.
The Blades finished 8th on the powerplay at 21.4%.
The Blades finished 6th on the penalty kill at 82.4%.
The Raiders finished 14th on the powerplay at 18.8%.
The Raiders finished 14th on the penalty kill at 79%.
Game 1 - Sat Mar 26 7:05 PM Prince Albert at Saskatoon
Game 2 - Sun Mar 27 6:05 PM Prince Albert at Saskatoon
Game 3 - Wed Mar 30 7:00 PM Saskatoon at Prince Albert
Game 4 - Thurs Mar 31 7:00 PM Saskatoon at Prince Albert
Game 5 - Sat Apr 2 7:05 PM * Prince Albert at Saskatoon
Game 6 - Sun Apr 3 7:00 PM * Saskatoon at Prince Albert
Game 7 - Tues Apr 5 7:05 PM * Prince Albert at Saskatoon
Both teams come into the playoffs playing pretty good hockey. The Blades have won 9 of their last 10 games. Some of those games weren’t exactly dominating wins like some might have expected, but they were wins none the less. I also think the team did a pretty good job improving some of their defensive miscues. They cleaned up their defensive zone coverage and looked a lot more like a group.
The Raiders won 3 games in a row to head into the postseason. That type of momentum could be lost with a week long break, but it has to be a nice feeling for that squad to know that they were playing good hockey in the last meaningful games they played.
Many people out there have the Blades winning this one easily, in either 4 or 5 games. I don’t blame those people and can’t really stray too much from that after looking deeper at this series. The Blades are simply the better team in every aspect. They have depth in all areas. I think the Raiders get one win in this series, likely on their home ice in either game 3 or 4. If they want to win more than that, they are going to have to get either some freak goaltending performances or some explosively quick offensive starts to a couple of the games. I don’t see that happening enough for the Raiders to pull this one out.
Blades in 5.