If this past weekend’s matches against the third-place Picton Pirates and second-place Port Hope Panthers were to be viewed as a test for how prepared the Napanee Raiders are for a deep playoff run, they passed with flying colours.
At home on Friday the Raiders had little trouble with Picton, cruising to a 6-1 win. The next night in Port Hope things were much more tense but Napanee still persevered with a 4-3 win.
Graham Dickerson got the Panthers on the board early on Saturday, scoring 4:31 into the first period. Austin Labelle responded at the 15:47 mark to allow Napanee the luxury of heading into the first intermission tied 1-1.
Devon King and Zach Knapp-Hermer scored 25 seconds apart in the second to put Napanee up 3-1, a lead they’d never surrender. Brandon Weeks cut it to 3-2 midway through the second and both teams continued to trade chances but neither found the back of the net. Ryan Casselman scored 46 seconds into the third on the power-play for what would turn out to be the game winner.
Greg Powles had a power-play marker for Port Hope at the 4:17 mark to set up a nervous final 15 minutes, but Raiders goalie Nicholas Nabuurs slammed the door the rest of the way. He made 11 saves in the third period alone, part of 33 on the night. Sheldon Calbury took the loss with 24 saves.
On Friday there was a lot less suspense as the Raiders built a 5-0 lead over Picton en route to the 6-1 victory. Labelle had a pair of goals for Napanee while Casselman, Riley Steeves, King and Griffen Conger each scored once. Jeremy Piazzi was nearly perfect in net for Napanee, going just shy of the midway mark of the final period before allowing a goal to Picton’s Devin Morrison.
Prior to their tussle with the league’s second and third best, the Raiders had an easy 9-1 win over the still winless Campbellford Rebels on Wednesday night for their first game of 2018. With three straight wins out of the chute, it appears as though the long holiday layoff didn’t slow the Raiders down a bit.
“We were practicing lots (over the break) which was good,” said Casselman, who picked up his league leading 84th point in Saturday’s win. “We kept in shape a little bit. I’m sure not too many other teams were practicing as much as we were. It definitely paid off and it doesn’t seem like we’re missing our stride at all.”
Prior to Saturday’s game in Port Hope he was hoping the team would continue their dominance of their rivals and look to make a statement with the playoffs looming next month.
“We want to keep rolling into the playoffs,” said Casselman. “Confidence means everything. We don’t want to give (Port Hope) any confidence going into the playoffs because I’m sure we’ll see them.”
Saturday’s win marked the fifth-straight win for Napanee over the three-time league champion Panthers, who remain the only team to beat Napanee in regulation this year back on opening night.
Along with gunning for the top overall seed, the Raiders also have the extra incentive of perhaps besting the franchise’s all time record of 74 points, which they did in 2008-2009. They currently have 53 points with 12 games to play, giving them a chance at 77 if they win out.
“We talked about it a little bit (Friday night),” Casselman said of the franchise record. “It’s definitely not our end goal. Our end goal is the Schmalz Cup. It’d be nice to set the all-time team record for team standings but at the end of the day that’s not our largest goal.”
Next up for Napanee is a road date with the Pirates on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. On Friday they’ll host the Gananoque Islanders at the SPC for a 7:30 p.m. puck drop. That game will also be the team’s annual teddy bear toss game to makeup for the Dec. 15 game that was postponed. For the latest standings and scoring leaders, visit http://www.napaneebeaver.ca/2017/11/09/raiders-stats/