May 1, 2017
by Greg Harder, Regina Leader Post
LETHBRIDGE — The Regina Pats are headed to the WHL final for the first time since 1984, but the Lethbridge Hurricanes made them earn it.
The visitors fought back from a 3-0 deficit on Sunday night to beat Lethbridge 7-4 at the Enmax Centre, securing a 4-2 decision in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final.
“It’s obviously real exciting for the organization as a whole and for the guys,” said Pats defenceman Josh Mahura. “This has been a goal for this team all year long to make it to where we are now. But we know we have one more step.”
Regina will face the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL championship series, commencing Friday night at the Brandt Centre. Seattle beat the Kelowna Rockets 3-1 on Sunday to wrap up the Western Conference final in six games.
“Our goal was to win this series tonight and get a couple days off before the final round,” said captain Adam Brooks, who’s in his fifth and final season with Regina. “To be the first team since (1984) and to go to the finals after all the stuff I’ve been through in this organization — all the changes and everything that have gone on — it’s a super surreal feeling. I’m so excited to get it going.”
After a rough start, the Pats found their legs midway through the first period and didn’t break stride until the closing minutes. That’s when Lethbridge tried to play catchup, only to have goaltender Tyler Brown slam the door.
“Brownie has been our backbone this whole playoff run,” said Mahura. “Even though they got a few early ones, he kept going and he didn’t give up.”
Neither did his teammates.
“I think five on five we carried the play all night,” said head coach/GM John Paddock, whose team outshot Lethbridge 45-28. “You don’t always get rewarded for it, especially with a goaltender like (Stuart) Skinner, but we ended up getting rewarded for it. When you get 45 pucks to the net, you should be able to score some goals.”
Although the series was all about tight-checking hockey, Regina’s vaunted offence showed up when the chips were down.
After averaging 1.7 goals in the first three games — at which point the Pats trailed 2-1 — they outscored Lethbridge 18-9 in the final three contests, all wins.
Game 6 was a microcosm of that trend.
After allowing the game’s first three goals, the Pats scored seven of the next eight to wrap up the conference crown.
“Obviously (the players) dug down and did the job,” said Paddock, whose team won the WHL’s regular-season title with a record of 52-12-7-1. “A lot of times we thought this year that we had a lot of easy things (happen), but they did stuff like that a lot of times just to keep winning streaks going, at the start of the year especially. They believe they’re always in the game.”
It didn’t look good Sunday when Lethbridge jumped out to a 3-0 lead just eight minutes into the contest.
Egor Babenko opened the scoring on a breakaway at the 1:43 mark, followed by power-play goals 1:06 apart from Jordy Bellerive and Ryan Vandervlis.
“I was thinking, ‘We have to kick it into gear now,” recalled Brown. “I’ll do as best I can but we need to kick it into high gear if we want to win this game.’ ”
That’s exactly what they did.
Robbie Holmes put Regina on the board 23 seconds later and Mahura made it 3-2 just 2:21 after that.
Giorgio Estephan responded 1:05 into the second period, notching the third power-play goal of the night for Lethbridge.
It was also the home team’s last goal of the night.
Filip Ahl got one back with 4:13 left in the second and Nick Henry tied it 1:33 later. Jeff de Wit gave the Pats their first lead 8:41 into the third period, followed by Austin Wagner’s insurance goal just two minutes after that.
The Hurricanes tried to mount a last-ditch comeback with their net empty, leading to a penalty shot for captain Tyler Wong with 1:09 left. The 20-year-old sniper failed to score but was awarded a re-do after Brown inadvertently knocked the net loose.
“The first one, I was just thinking, ‘I gotta stop it.’ Then they got the second one and I was like, ‘Why? Just why?’ ” Brown said with a laugh. “(The refs) told me because he didn’t get a shot off before the net was off you have to re-do it.”
Wong fired over the net on his second attempt, sealing the Hurricanes’ fate. Wyatt Sloboshan added an empty netter a few seconds later, giving Regina five unanswered goals.
“We had to chip away,” Brooks said. “Robbie’s line went out and got us a big goal to get the tires rolling again. It just seemed to keep going from there. It was a complete team effort tonight — all four lines, all the defence and Brownie was outstanding, especially stopping two penalty shots late. That is exactly what we need at this time of year.”
NOTE: The WHL final will be a 2-3-2 format. The first two games are in Regina (Friday and Saturday), followed by three in Seattle (May 9, 10, 12). The last two (if necessary) are back in Regina (May 14 and 15). Tickets for Game 1 and Game 2 go on sale Monday at noon.