Experience not required Top-ranked Ice enter playoffs with few post-season games on resumes

Post-season experience is a much-hyped difference-maker at this time of the year.

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Post-season experience is a much-hyped difference-maker at this time of the year.

Yet, for the Winnipeg Ice and Prince Albert Raiders, who will engage in a quarter-final match-up of the Nos. 1 and 8 seeds in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, it’s the absence of playoff seasoning that is the most telling.

Winnipeg has almost none.

EASTERN CONFERNCE QUARTER-FINALS

(Best-of-seven series)

• Game 1: Friday, at Winnipeg, 7 p.m.
• Game 2: Saturday, at Winnipeg, 7 p.m.
• Game 3: Tuesday, at Prince Albert, 8 p.m.
• Game 4: Wednesday, at Prince Albert, 8 p.m.
• x-Game 5: Friday, April 29, at Winnipeg, 7 p.m.
• x-Game 6: Sunday, May 1, at Prince Albert, 7 p.m.
• x-Game 7: Tuesday, May 3, at Winnipeg, 7 p.m.

x-if necessary

All times Central

Centre Jack Finley had 16 playoff games as a member of the Spokane Chiefs as a 16-year-old rookie while depth defenceman Jarod Newell appeared in one game for the Tri-City Americans in 2018-19.

Meanwhile, the Raiders’ resume is similarly thin. Winnipegger Reece Vitelli, a 20-year-old forward, had a combined 32 playoff games with the Everett Silvertips before arriving in a trade and defenceman Remy Aquilon played 15 games over two seasons with the Victoria Royals.

Meanwhile, centre Ozzy Weisblatt had 23 games from Prince Albert’s run to a WHL championship three seasons ago but the first-round NHL draft pick has been sidelined indefinitely with an upper-body injury.

Since then, a pandemic has forced the cancellation of the WHL post-season in both 2020 and 2021.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Jack Finley is one of two players on the Winnipeg Ice who have playoff experience in the WHL.

“To finally have that chance it’s pretty exciting,” said Ice defenceman Carson Lambos Wednesday as his club prepared for Friday’s Game 1 against the Raiders. “I know for a lot of guys it’s their first playoff game so there’s kind of a lot of excitement that come along with that.”

Lambos, a rugged all-round performer, is expected to flourish in the post-season, where physical play is sometimes ratcheted to the extreme and the threshold for penalty calls changes dramatically.

“I grew up watching the NHL playoffs with the Jets here in Winnipeg and you just get to see that it’s the only sport where there’s… a big change between the regular season and the playoffs,” said Lambos.

“It’s going to be the first time I’m experiencing it, but I think I’m definitely preparing for it and ready for it. It’s going to be a lot more physical than regular season.”

CHELSEA KEMP / THE BRANDON SUN Winnipeg Ice Carson Lambos, a rugged all-round performer, is expected to flourish in the post-season, where physical play is sometimes ratcheted to the extreme and the threshold for penalty calls changes dramatically.

In Prince Albert, the Ice has drawn one of the teams that has given it the most trouble during a 53-10-3-1 regular season. The Raiders posted wins in three of the eight meetings between the teams and lost one game in overtime.

“I think it’s just a little easier to get up get for teams like Winnipeg, they’re such a good team,” said P.A. forward Evan Herman, who was a non-playing late season call-up during the Raiders title run in 2018-19. “I think it kind of (forces us) to raise our bar to match what they have to bring to the table.”

The Raiders won their final two regular-season games to sneak into the eighth playoff spot ahead of the Swift Current Broncos, Calgary Hitmen and Regina Pats on the final weekend and much of the credit for keeping P.A. in the race belongs with 18-year-old rookie goaltender Tikhon Chayka, an import from Belarus.

Chayka went 22-21-4 with a 2.79 goals-against and a .904 save percentage including a 3-2-1-0 mark against the Ice, the league’s highest scoring team.

“He’s been the backbone of our group for the last half of the year — he’s been a brick wall,” said Herman, who hails from The Pas. “He’s just super athletic. He just moves quicker than a lot of goalies I’ve seen.”

“He’s (Tikhon Chayka) been the backbone of our group for the last half of the year– he’s been a brick wall… He’s just super athletic. He just moves quicker than a lot of goalies I’ve seen.” – P.A. forward Evan Herman

Visa issues delayed Chayka’s arrival in North America but he showed steady improvement once he got settled in the WHL.

“He gives us a chance to win every night,” said Raiders general manager Curtis Hunt. “Three times in the last six weeks he’s been named goaltender of the week so when you look at our ticket to the dance, he’s certainly a big part of it.”

Matt Savoie, who shared team MVP honours with Lambos last week, said Chayka is a challenge he wants to solve.

“He’s definitely a competitive goalie,” said Savoie. “He’s really athletic and he battles out there and he’s definitely competed against us so far. We’re really looking forward to playing him again getting some more looks on him.”

“He’s (Tikhon Chayka) definitely a competitive goalie… He’s really athletic and he battles out there and he’s definitely competed against us so far. We’re really looking forward to playing him again getting some more looks on him.” – Matt Savoie

Connor McClennon, who led the Ice with 43 goals in the regular season, respects the Raiders but likes his team’s chances.

“We’re just a really deep team,” said McClennon, who will play in his first playoff game after 179 regular-season outings with the Kootenay-Winnipeg franchise. “I think with all four lines, whoever our six D are and whatever goalie is in net, I think we can we can play against anyone. We know that but I think if we just focus on the little things and playing our game, that’s what will make us tough to beat.”

BLUE-LINES: Veteran Ice goaltender Gage Alexander (lower-body injury) practised Wednesday and could dress for Friday’s playoff opener. “He’s very close,” said head coach James Patrick of Alexander, who hasn’t played since March 5.

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Jack Finley is one of two players on the Winnipeg Ice who have playoff experience in the WHL.
Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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