CHL-topping Prince Albert Raiders have bigger goals ahead

Marc Habscheid, pictured speaking to Sidney Crosby during practice at the 2006 IIHF World Hockey Championships. Habscheid's Prince Albert Raiders are in the midst of a record-setting season, but the coach says the top squad in the Western Hockey League is still a long way from achieving their goals. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

VANCOUVER — The Prince Albert Raiders are in the midst of a record-setting season, but coach Marc Habscheid says there’s still fine tuning to be done for the Canadian Hockey League’s top team.

"There’s no banner for 40 wins. Our guys are happy with it, but we have bigger things to go," Habscheid said in Langley, B.C., last week after his squad suffered a rare loss at the hands of the Vancouver Giants.

With 84 points and a 41-6-2 record, the Raiders are 12 points up on the Everett Silvertips, the nearest competition in the Western Hockey League.

The race recently got more competitive in the CHL standings. While Prince Albert still sits at the top, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s streaking Rouyn-Noranda Huskies are close behind with 83 points after winning their last 11 straight.

Success wasn’t a given for the Raiders this year, especially after they finished least season with a dismal 21-44-7 record, third last in the WHL and out of a playoff spot.

"Every year you coach or you play, you want to win the championship. It doesn’t matter where you’re ranked," Habscheid said. "No one had us picked at the beginning of the year to do anything. And now we are where we are."

Captain Brayden Pachal said even the players are a little surprised by their success.

"Coming into this season, we knew we would be strong, but not this strong," said the 19-year-old defenceman.

"I don’t think we have the big names that other teams do. But with team success comes individual success and I think we know that. So we play for each other."

Starting in early October, the Raiders went on a 19-game win streak and looked to be giving the 2004-05 London Knights a run for the title of best season in CHL history. The Knights posted a 59-7-2 record that year and went on to win the Memorial Cup.

Prince Albert’s win on Jan. 22 marked the first time since 1998-99 that the club tallied 40 or more victories in a single season.

Maturity is part of what’s changed this year said Habscheid, who coached the Kelowna Rockets to a championship title in 2004.

"Guys are another year older and things have come together," he said. "The guys play for one another. They’ve always played for one another. We just try to keep the culture the same, whether we’re losing or winning."

The talent across group is also "crazy," said Brett Leason.

"Our team is so deep and every day we come to play," said the 19-year-old right-winger. "It’s fun going to the rink and just going on stretches of games. It’s impressive. Everyone’s enjoying it."

Leason — a hulking six-foot-four, 199-pound athlete — was passed over at last year’s NHL draft.

He took the snub as motivation and worked over the off-season to get faster and improve his skills. Now Leason is one of the WHL’s top-five scorers, putting up 31 goals and 42 assists over 41 games.

The Calgary native was also picked to play in this year’s world junior hockey tournament in Vancouver, where he put up three goals and two assists.

"It was one of the best experiences of my life. I just realized that I want to do that, play in front of that crowd every single day," Leason said.

Raiders goalie Ian Scott also donned the Maple Leaf in the tournament, and said he’s shared tips and memories he picked up with his teammates in Prince Albert.

"I’ve been dreaming about it since I was a little kid. It was something pretty special to be a part of," said the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect. "Maybe not seeing a lot of games, but just being able to be part of it and doing what I can for the team, it’s an experience I’ll remember forever."

Scott’s performance has been key for the Raiders this season. With a 28-5-2 record, a 1.80 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage, he’s the CHL’s top netminder.

But the 19-year-old Calgary native remains humble.

"I wouldn’t be having the season I’m having without the team in front of me," he said. "They’ve been pretty shut down and it’s just about getting better going forward."

Heading into the season’s final stretch, the Raiders are feeling confident that they’re on the cusp of something big, Scott said.

So is the community around them. Prince Albert hasn’t won the Memorial Cup since 1985 — at least 13 years before any of the current players were born — but a feeling of possibility hangs in the air.

"You see it around town in Prince Albert. The fans are getting behind us, attendance is up and it’s a really good atmosphere. I think it’s just big for the whole hockey community up there," Scott said, adding that he and his teammates often get recognized at the local Tim Hortons.

"And obviously for us, it’s fun to be a part of."

It’s not just hockey fans paying attention. More and more NHL representatives have been turning out to games.

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin was among more than 100 scouts in a suburban Vancouver arena last week when the Raiders visited the Giants.

The players know all about the extra eyes, Habscheid said.

"They want to get noticed," he said. "That’s why these guys are playing. And I hope every one of them gets an NHL contract and plays 15 years."

Other teams are also paying attention and have made adjustments accordingly, the coach said, adding that it’s forcing his squad to constantly fine tune their own game.

"Teams try to play different ways to beat us, which is good," Habscheid said. "So we have to be — and we are — multi-dimensional, so we can play different styles. We just want to keep getting better and evolving our game."

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