Perhaps the Red Deer Rebels and Prince Albert Raiders should simply be satisfied with qualifying for the Western Hockey League playoffs this season.
“It’s probably exciting for both teams, especially considering where we were last year,” Raiders head coach Steve Young said Tuesday, in reference to the Rebels’ and Raiders’ non-playoff status in 2011-12.
Of course, neither club will be just OK with earning a ticket to the post-season dance. Prince Albert and Red Deer will hook up in a best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final — opening Friday and Saturday at the Centrium — that should be closely and bitterly contested after the clubs each won twice in their four-game regular-season series.
For the record, the Rebels actually won the season series, considering their two victories over the Raiders — 6-1 and 4-2 in Red Deer — were secured in regulation time while Prince Albert prevailed 5-4 via shootout and 4-2 in overtime on home ice.
Still, there appears to be little to choose among the two squads. The fourth-place Rebels were 5-4-1-0 over their last 10 games and finished with 39 wins and 85 points, while the Raiders were 4-5-1-0 in their last 10 and posted 37 wins and 81 points overall.
In addition, both clubs were among the least penalized in the entire league this winter, with the Raiders racking up 946 penalty minutes and the Rebels finishing with 938.
“We’re very close in a lot of categories,” said Young. “But we’re starting on the road so it’s important that we be prepared to play in the atmosphere that’s going to exist in Red Deer.”
The Raiders will be in good shape if they can post one or more victories this weekend, being that they were 20-10-3-3 at the Art Hauser Centre this season.
“Our fans deserve a lot of credit,” said Young. “They like to make noise and it’s a smaller, more compact building. But I think any team in this league knows that their strength has to be at home.”
The Raiders struggled down the stretch but posted back-to-back home-ice wins over the Saskatoon Blades to edge out the Swift Current Broncos for fifth place in the conference.
Perhaps the final regular-season weekend surge will serve as a playoff momentum boost for the Raiders.
“We’re hoping so,” said Young. “Since Christmas we’ve had our ups and down. We felt it was important to finish on a strong note, not necessarily winning but just doing the things we believe we’re capable of doing and showed we’re capable of doing in the first half.
“So yes, we’re hoping that last weekend does give us that boost going into the playoffs.”
Goaltending, of course, will be key to either team’s success.
Luke Siemens has carried a heavy load for the Raiders, second only to Ty Rimmer of the Lethbridge Hurricanes for most minutes played, and had a 35-23-3-3 record with a 2.89 goals-against average and .912 save percentage. Red Deer’s Patrik Bartosak, in comparison, was 33-14-5-0 with five shutouts, a 2.26 GAA and .935 save percentage.
Young agreed that solving Bartosak will be difficult and yet, of course, necessary.
“No question, we believe he’s very strong and capable at what he does,” said Young, adding that the series may come to a structure-versus-structure battle.
“Red Deer plays a very strong, structured game and for us it’s going to be important that we don’t turn over pucks,” said the Raiders bench boss “We have to be a strong, structured team ourselves.”
While the Rebels allowed 29 fewer goals that the Raiders during the regular season, they also scored 28 less than their first-round opponents.
Prince Albert clearly has offensive depth with the likes of Anthony Bardaro, captain Mark McNeill, German import Leon Draisaiti and Trochu product Mike Winther.
“They are all capable of scoring and they’re well aware that they’re going to have to work hard to get into the areas where they’ll need to be to score,” said Young.
l The Rebels/Raiders first-round schedule:
Friday: Prince Albert at Red Deer, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday: Prince Albert at Red Deer, 7:30 p.m.; Tuesday, March 26: Red Deer at Prince Albert, 7 p.m.; Wednesday, March 27: Red Deer at Prince Albert, 7 p.m.; Friday, March 29 (if necessary): Prince Albert at Red Deer, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, March 31 (if necessary): Red Deer at Prince Albert, 7 p.m.; Tuesday, April 2 (if necessary): Prince Albert at Red Deer, 7 p.m.