The Prince Albert Raiders skate into the spotlight this week in rising to No. 3 in the Kia CHL Top-10 Rankings.
Just months after capturing the Ed Chynoweth Cup as Western Hockey League champions, the club remains a dominant force and unbeaten in regulation through nine games, owning a 7-0-2 record that sits top spot in the league’s East Division with 16 points. Over the past week, the Raiders continued to find the win column in chalking up back-to-back victories over the Lethbridge Hurricanes and Moose Jaw Warriors.
“I’d be lying if I said I expected this to start the season,” Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid told Lucas Punkari of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. “That says a lot about our guys. They want to win. When you are the defending champions and you have that taste of success, you don’t want to give it up.”
Leading the way for the Raiders is Belarusian centre and Washington Capitals prospect Aliaksei Protas, who has collected 14 points counting six goals and eight assists to sit tied for third in league-wide scoring. In all, the budding talent has been held off the scoresheet just twice this season, with his most impressive showing coming Saturday against the Warriors in which he put up a three-point effort, including the eventual game-winning tally en route to an 8-4 victory.
Protas’ impressive play is a continuation from last year’s postseason when the then freshman reached a new level in producing just shy of a point-per-game clip with 12 goals and 10 assists in 23 playoff contests to finish fourth in springtime scoring.
Prince Albert has greatly benefited from Protas quickly adapting to an elevated role given key departures, particularly to the forward ranks with Brett Leason, Noah Gregor, and Parker Kelly. That role is likely to become even more crucial following a Sunday move that made fellow forward Cole Fonstad a member of the Everett Silvertips.
Despite Protas’ early success, he hasn’t been going it alone up front – there is also first-year forward Ilya Usau, who sits second in the club’s goal-scoring column with five tallies on the season. The 18-year-old needed some time to adapt to his new surroundings as he was held off the scoresheet in his first three contests, but in the ensuing six games, he has recorded nine points, including a season-high four-point showing against Moose Jaw. Usau is currently riding a three-game goal streak, having lit the lamp four times during that stretch.
“I have more of an idea of how the team plays and I’ve been picking things up along the way,” Usau told Punkari. “However, there’s still more work to do and I can get better every time out. I’m just trying to do whatever I can out there to help the team win and I’m just staying focused on the details.”
On the back end, the Raiders have a gifted up-and-comer in 17-year-old rearguard Kaiden Guhle, the first-overall selection from the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft who earlier this month was tabbed a Grade ‘A’ Player to Watch by NHL Central Scouting – indicating a likely first-round candidate – ahead of the 2020 NHL Draft in Montreal.
A steady defensive presence with even better mobility, Guhle has found his scoring touch this season as he has already recorded eight points counting two goals and six assists to sit tied for fourth in scoring among WHL defencemen. After finishing 2018-19 with a modest 17 points, Guhle continues to grow into his offensive game, as evidenced by his current four-game point streak that includes a career-high four-point night in a 6-0 victory over the Regina Pats in which he collected one goal with three assists and was recognized with first-star honours.
Perhaps the season’s biggest question mark surrounding the Raiders was stability between the pipes following the departure of Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Ian Scott, who last year claimed the Del Wilson Trophy as the WHL’s top goaltender before later adding WHL playoff MVP and CHL Goaltender of the Year honours to his resume.
That question has been answered by 18-year-old netminder Boston Bilous, who appeared in nine games with Prince Albert last season following his acquisition from the Edmonton Oil Kings. Now holding down the starting duties, Bilous has been nearly unbeatable, with his lone two defeats across eight appearances coming in overtime, while he has allowed just 15 markers to own a 1.83 goals-against average with a .912 save percentage. Combined with backup goaltender Carter Serhyenko, who surrendered two goals in his lone appearance, the Raiders top the charts with just 17 goals allowed on the season.
That sort of domination in the blue paint, alongside young talents across the blue line and among the forward ranks growing into bigger roles, will help the Raiders continue to find success this season, and in the team’s upcoming five-game road swing that begins Saturday in Everett.