In the second half of the Western Hockey League regular season, they were two of the hottest teams in the league, and now they’ll meet with a spot in the WHL final on the line.
After finishing with the league’s best record, the Prince Albert Raiders enter the Eastern Conference final Friday night against the Edmonton Oil Kings, who won 11 in a row to end the regular season and finished atop the Central Division.
"The second half of the season, we’ve really played a good five-on-five game," Oil Kings coach Brad Lauer said. "We were a very fragile team at the start of the year with the highs and the lows, and as the season went on, especially in the second half, we really controlled our emotions. We didn’t get too high or too low. We approached the game a lot differently. We had more confidence going in game to game in the second half of the season."
As for the Raiders, who are coming off a 54-win regular season, the team enters the conference final on the heels of a six-game series win over the Saskatoon Blades.
Prince Albert coach Marc Habscheid had plenty of praise for his players in talking about the club’s success to this point in the season.
"You’re not going to do anything if you don’t have good players and we have that, but we have even better people," Habscheid said. "That has really helped us in building a true team. We have good depth and part of that is everyone cares about one another and looks out for one another."
A veteran group of defencemen have been an important part of the Oil Kings’ success. A willingness to improve and embrace the system in place has helped the group become a formidable piece of the team.
"The biggest thing was most of our guys were returning guys that have played in the league," Lauer said. "That was a big help for our group.
"There wasn’t a lot for them to learn about the league and most of the stuff they were learning was stuff they needed to get better at, just with our systems and the way we wanted to play the game," Lauer added. "They’ve really embraced the style that we want to play. We move very well on the blue line. They’re very aggressive in the offensive zone with a lot of motion."
Lauer added that the Oil Kings’ ability to rely on four lines has been a help as well.
With Trey Fix-Wolansky, a 2018 seventh-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets’, and overager Vince Loschiavo leading the way, the Oil Kings’ depth allows the team to not feel forced to match lines.
"The season is too hard to just rely on two or three lines to get you through it," Lauer said. "It’s too demanding on guys the way the game is played nowadays. I really liked the core group we had returning. I liked our skill level. We went with four lines right away [to start the season] to get them going. We didn’t really match lines a lot. We let them play and do their job."
Lauer said he expects a tough series with the league-leading Raider, adding he liked the way his team played in three of its four meetings with Prince Albert this season.
"I liked how we played the second half," Lauer said. "[Prince Albert] has had a tremendous season. They’re well-coached. They’re very detailed and organized.
"We have to be aware of the things they want to do," Lauer added. "I expect it to be physical. Going into P.A. in a smaller barn, the emotion of the community behind their team, that’s going to be exciting for our guys to be in. It will definitely be a good challenge for us. Our guys are ready for the challenge."
For the Raiders, the key to being successful is not changing a thing.
"We need to keep doing a lot of what we’re doing," Habscheid said. "We had a good regular season, but in the playoffs different things become important. Our guys have done a good job paying attention to those details. That’s what playoff hockey is all about."
Against the Oil Kings, that philosophy won’t change.
"They do some things tactically that we have to be aware of, but we want to make sure we’re playing our game against them," Habscheid said.
The series is set to kick off in Prince Albert.
The Vancouver Giants and Spokane Chiefs are also set to open tonight in the Western Conference final and it’s a pair of teams that, like their counterparts in the Eastern final, have some high-end talent.
For the Giants, the season has come down to balance.
"It’s a combination of depth – and not only depth as far as four good lines, six good defencemen and two good goaltenders – but balance as far as age goes," Vancouver coach Michael Dyck said. "We’ve got some older guys who have been through some lean years here and some younger players who have come in and made them better. Our leadership group has been good. Everything has been done by committee."
That balance is evidenced in the play of goaltenders Trent Miner and David Tendeck, a 2018 sixth-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes.
Through 10 playoff games, the pair have split the action through the opening two rounds. They have identical 4-1 records and combined for a goals-against average of 2.14.
"They’ve done such a good job working together," Dyck said. "They’re good friends off the ice. They’re good teammates on the ice.
"We’re in a great situation here that we have depth," Dyck added.
For the Chiefs, coach Dan Lambert said playoff success has come down to a couple of things.
"I don’t think too many people thought we were going to get by both Portland and Everett," Lambert said. "The key for that has been some luck for sure, but our team buy-in has been really good, and our goaltending and special teams have been really good as well."
On the blue line, the Chiefs have a group that moves the puck well in the likes of Ty Smith, a 2018 first-round pick of New Jersey Devils, and Nolan Reid, among others. The group does include some sandpaper as well.
"These guys can move the puck out of the zone pretty well, they defend well," Lambert said. "They aren’t necessarily the most physical guys, but then you have Matt Leduc and Bobby Russell who round out [the group]."
Both Dyck and Lambert have high expectations for the series.
"They’ve got a lot of talent and a tremendous amount of speed," Dyck said of the Chiefs. "We’re going to have to be disciplined. It’s going to come down to loose-puck battles.
"They play well defensively," Lambert said of the Giants. "They’re really good on the rush. They’re a team that knows how to win. It’s going to be a hard-fought battle."