Thunderbirds stun top ranked Raiders behind Jaxan Kaluski hat trick
Two times. Twice. That’s how many times the Prince Albert Raiders had lost at the Art Houser Centre in 20 games prior to Wednesday night.
The Seattle Thunderbirds made it three times. Thrice.
Playing one of their best games of the year, the Thunderbirds stunned the CHL’s top team behind the first career hat trick for Jaxan Kaluski and 32 saves for rookie Roddy Ross by a 4-1 score.
“The guys stepped up and saw a big challenge in front of them,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said after. “Every guy raised their game and emptied the tank. I’m very proud of the team.”
This shouldn’t have happened. After all, Prince Albert (35-5-0-1) had Ian Scott, the league’s top goalie, back in net along with the WHL’s fourth leading scorer in Brett Leason. Both players had been with Team Canada for the World Junior Championships. The Raiders far and away are the top goal scoring team in the league while allowing a league low 86 goals coming in. They also had Tuesday night off while Seattle had played in Saskatoon.
Seattle (13-21-4-0) had been struggling all year and just made three major trades to shake up their lineup. Ross was playing in a lower level of junior hockey a week ago.
None of that mattered Wednesday.
“It was a big challenge that was lying ahead of us,” O’Dete said. “We’ve got some competitive guys in there, starting with (Nolan) Volcan. He put the team on his back and the guys just followed suit. We’ve heard through the grape vine that they were the heaviest team out east and they based their success on how heavy they play. They’re a heavy team and we like to think we’re a heavy team so guys were excited to turn this game into a dog fight.”
The Thunderbirds played hard from the start. They limited the Raiders to mostly outside, perimeter shots. They got in passing lanes and blocked shots. Every player sold out to get the win.
“Obviously we got up for this game,” O’Dette added. “It felt like a playoff game for us. Guys blocking shots, every guy engaged on the bench. That type of energy is contagious and every guy kind of fed off each other. That’s what we need, we need that every game and we can obviously find a lot of success that way.”
While Seattle failed on its five power-play chances, it got a big kill in the first period, when the Raiders had an extended five-on-three look on their power play. The game was still scoreless but the Thunderbirds killers, along with Ross, held them off.
Prince Albert would end the night 0-for-3 with the man advantage.
“That was definitely a turning point in the game,” O’Dette said. “Our PK stepped up and did an unbelievable job on the five-on-three. Guys played it well and they’re a dangerous power play unit out there . I think we’ve got the most experience on the five-on-three penalty kill than any team in the league so that definitely helps.”
It was in the second period that the Thunderbirds were at their best. Kaluski struck early on, at 1:23, with his first of the night but the Raiders would answer right back with a goal from Dante Hannoun. It would be seven minutes later when Kaluski would score his second, on a back hand from in close after a Jake Lee shot was stopped by Scott.
He would complete the hat trick, and notch goal number five on the year, at 17:06, by converting on a two-on-one with Noah Philp. It was the biggest night in his career and he did it in front of about 50 friends and family in attendance.
“Obviously you’re happy for Jax,” O’Dette said of the 19-year-old Kaluski. “That’s a kid that works hard every night. He’s a great kid, great teammate. As coaches we’re happy to see guys rewarded like that, especially in front of his friends and family. Huge night for him and hopefully that can spark some more. He’s been playing great for us all year.”
Seattle would end up out shooting Prince Albert 21-11 in the middle frame.
Still with plenty of time to go, the Thunderbirds kept the Raiders at bay thanks to solid defense and big saves from Ross. Making just his second career WHL start, and appearing in only his third WHL game, the big 6-foot-4 goaltender played relaxed and confident.
“That’s a tall order in your second start to play against PA,” O’Dette said of his goalie. “He looked calm, cool and collected in there. I think that’s one of his strengths. He’s a pretty calm goaltender in there, not a lot of wasted motion. I think the two days working with (goalie coach Ian Gordon) helped him out, he did a great job.”
With Ross holding off the Raiders, Matthew Wedman would ice the game with an empty net goal late to start the celebration. Seattle has suddenly won two of three on its eastern swing and with two more to go, is playing with a ton of confidence.
After the big win, O’Dette is giving the team a well-earned day off on Thursday. The Thunderbirds will finish the week with games Friday and Saturday, starting in Moose Jaw.
“You kind of circle key moments of the season that can be turning points and this can definitely be one for us,” O’Dette said. “I think the moves that we made have energized us, some fresh energy in the room and guys have bonded together quickly. We hope to use this momentum moving forward.”
• Kaluski’s hat trick was the sixth of the season by a Thunderbird player. Zack Andrusiak had three before being traded to Everett, Volcan has one and Philp also has a hat trick.
• Wedman has goals in three straight games.
• While Seattle didn’t score on its five power-plays, it was a dangerous unit. The Thunderbirds created a number of Grade-A scoring chances, especially on their early looks, but just couldn’t get one past Scott.
• The win pulled the Thunderbirds to within a point of the Prince George Cougars in the standings. The Cougars were in action Wednesday night as they played in Spokane. A Cougars loss would allow Seattle to leap frog out of the bottom of the Western Conference standings and they are within three points of Kamloops for the last playoff spot in the West.