The Vancouver Giants know they're likely not the favourites heading into game one of the Western Hockey League finals tonight in Prince Albert.
They'll be battling the Eastern Conference champion Raiders, who dominated through the regular season, posting an early 19-game win streak en route to a league-leading 112 points.
But Vancouver coach Michael Dyck said the adversity is simply extra motivation for his group.
"We're probably going to be perceived as the underdogs. And we don't mind that," he said. "And the pressure is on (the Raiders).”
The Giants haven't exactly been slouches. The team posted a 48-15-3 record in the regular season and has been strong through the playoffs, taking out the Seattle Thunderbirds in six games, sweeping the Victoria Royals, then downing the Spokane Chiefs in five to punch their ticket to the final.
The ride has been an enjoyable one, said Dyck, who's in his first year as bench boss with the club.
“From a coaching standpoint, you love to win and you love to move forward with your group. And that's my job as a coach,” he said. “But at the same time, a big part of junior hockey is development so what you like to see is how guys evolve through the regular season and even into the playoffs.”
One player who's taken a giant leap in his development is Bowen Byram.
The 17-year-old led WHL defenceman in goals during the regular season with 26 and has the most post-season points of any skater in the league, with seven goals and 11 assists.
“We all know how good of a player Bowen is and yet in the playoffs, there's a whole bunch of new challenges as far as maintaining your composure and your poise. And he's done that,” Dyck said of the Cranbrook, B.C., native who's expected to be a high pick at this year's NHL draft.
“He's played extremely well through the playoffs, when it's got a lot tougher than it is in the regular season.”
Other players have stepped up, too, including the line of Owen Hardy, Dawson Holt and Jared Dmytriw. The trio has a combined 35 points in the post-season, and Dyck said they were the Giants best combo in the series against Spokane.
The next challenge for Vancouver's offensive forces will be getting past Raiders goalie Ian Scott. The 20-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs prospect has been a playoff powerhouse and boasts a 12-3-1 record with a .930 save percentage and a 1.84 goals-against average.
Scott and his teammates have had to fight to get to the WHL finals.
After sweeping the Red Deer Rebels in round one, Prince Albert took out their Saskatchewan rivals the Saskatoon Blades in six games. Then the Edmonton Oil Kings took an early 2-1 series lead in the last round before the Raiders eventually dispatched them in six meetings.
“We've been challenged and we've responded well and I think we've built up a little callousness in terms of being pushed, which is a good thing in the playoffs,” said Raiders coach Marc Habscheid.
“Nothing came easy. You're down 2-1 in the series and you have to find a way to pick yourself up and dust yourself off and figure things out and respond in the next game.”
Centre Aliaksei Protas helped lift Prince Albert to the series win, providing hat tricks in each of the last two games. He leads the WHL in post-season goals with 11.
This season marks the first time the 18-year-old Belarusian has played in Canada and Protas has excelled, especially in the playoffs, Habscheid said.
“He's just a tremendous kid,” the coach said. “He got better every day and big smile on his face every time he comes to the rink. He's a smart player. I think that's his biggest attribute.”
Whether or not Protas will keep his scoring streak alive against the Giants remains to be seen.
Vancouver provides some stiff competition in the form of a structured, hard game, Habscheid said.
The Giants and Raiders faced off just once during the regular season. Vancouver snatched a 3-1 home win from a tightly fought contest.
The play was physical and fast, but Habscheid said he's not sure if that's what fans should expect from the finals series.
“I hate to steal a line from Forest Gump but it's like a box of chocolates,” he said. “You don't know what you're going to get until you bite into it. So we'll see come Friday.”
Game two is Saturday before the series shifts to the Langley Events Centre for potentially three games next Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.
The winner of the Giants-Raiders series will head to Halifax to play for Memorial Cup, starting on May 17.