Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Pats capture WHL regular season title, Blades wonder what might have been

Caleb Fantillo (#39) looks out to the ice after the Blades loss.
    REGINA - The Saskatoon Blades did their best to try and spoil the party for the Regina Pats.
    They stormed out to a 3-1 lead after the first period in a WHL clash on Tuesday night at the Brandt Centre. From there, the Pats staged a classic comeback to skate away with a 5-4 victory and lock up first place overall in the WHL regular season standings for the first time since they last won the Memorial Cup in 1974.
    While the Pats, who improved to 49-12-7-1, celebrated winning the Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy to the delight of 4,695 spectators, the Blades were left to ponder how much closer they are getting to the end of their campaign.
    Saskatoon dropped to 27-34-7-2 to fall perilously close to being eliminated from playoff contention.
Entering the night, the Blades could potentially catch either the Red Deer Rebels or the Calgary Hitmen to move into a playoff spot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference. The Rebels (29-28-8-4) clinched a playoff berth with an 8-3 romp over the Tigers in Medicine Hat.
The Pats salute their fans after Tuesday’s game.
    The Hitmen (28-31-8-2) led the Blades by three points in the standing for eighth place overall in the Eastern Conference and the conference’s final wildcard berth. Calgary just needs to earn two more points in the standings to clinch the conference’s final playoff berth and can do just that in a road clash against the Rebels in Red Deer on Wednesday. The Rebels sit four points ahead of the Hitmen in the standings.
    “It (the Blades dressing room) is pretty deflated right now,” said Blades overage centre Jesse Shynkaruk. “Not too many words were said after that one especially giving up a two-goal lead.
    “We are not out of it yet technically, but it seems like the odds are pretty well stacked against us. We need pretty much a miracle to get into playoffs. We are not out of yet.
    “We will see what Calgary does and go from there.”
    In the opening 20 minutes, Caleb Fantillo, Dryden Michaud and Josh Paterson all netted singles for the Blades, while Nick Henry replied for the Pats.
Jesse Shynkaruk weaves into the offensive zone for the Blades.
    The tallies from Michaud – the first of his WHL career - and Paterson came 28 seconds apart from each other near the end of the first period and broke a 1-1 tie.
    The Pats regrouped and came at the Blades in waves in the second. Jeff de Wit started the rally for the hosts, and star centre Sam Steel buried his 49th of the season off a giveaway from Blades import defenceman Libor Hajek to tie things up at 3-3.
    With 1:44 to play in the second, Steel sent a beauty pass to pinching defenceman Josh Mahura on a two-on-one break to put the Pats up 4-3.
    “A team like that, you can’t give them any momentum,” said Shynkaruk. “They ran with it and got a couple of quick ones. We were kind back on our heels, and it kind of went from there.”
    In the third, Pats star offensive defenceman Connor Hobbs blasted home his 29th of the season from the point while working the power play to extend Regina’s advantage to 5-3 with 4:38 to play.
Blades rookie Dryden Michaud, centre, celebrates his first WHL goal.
    Still, the Blades didn’t go away and had a chance to rally back, when the Pats encountered penalty troubles. Working on a two-man advantage with the goalie pulled, Blades winger Michael Farren converted a passing play from Shynkaruk and Braylon Shmyr to cut Regina’s lead to 5-4 with 1:17 to play.
    Saskatoon continued to work on the power play through to the end of the frame but couldn’t find the equalizer.
    Logan Flodell turned away 30 shots to take the loss in goal for the Blades. Tyler Brown turned away 22 shots to pick up the win in goal for the Pats.
    Regina captain Adam Brooks picked up three assists in the win.
    Pats head coach and general manager John Paddock was pleased to see his club lock up first overall and home ice advantage through the entire WHL playoffs.
    “I think any time that happens everybody is obviously extremely happy,” said Paddock. “You think about it after you achieved it.
Sam Steel netted his 49th goal of the season and two assists for the Pats.
    “There is lots more we obviously want to do. As (assistant coach) Dave (Struch) just said in there, it is really hard thing to be the best team after 72 games.
    “It doesn’t mean a lot. You get some sort of trophy, but it is not what you are ultimately playing for.”
    Paddock of course was hinting at winning the Ed Chynoweth Cup as league champions and capturing the Memorial Cup for major junior supremacy.
    Last season with the Rebels, de Wit was part of team that advanced to the WHL’s Eastern Conference championship series and played in the Memorial Cup tournament as the host squad.
    On WHL trade deadline day back on Jan. 10, de Wit was dealt along with Mahura from the Rebels to the Pats to help Regina make a long post-season run, and the gritty forward, who celebrated his 19th birthday on Tuesday, was happy to help the Pats lock up first overall in the WHL.
Josh Mahura works the point on the power play for the Pats.
    “I knew how deep this team was and the type of skill they had,” said de Wit. “Coming here, I just wanted to contribute and play my best hockey.
    “I’ve done that for the most part, and it is pretty exciting to clinch league.”
    For the Blades, they are forced to mull over three straight losses against two very tough teams. Before falling to the Pats on Tuesday, the Blades dropped both games of a home-and-home series with the Swift Current Broncos, who are 38-21-4-6, this past weekend. Saskatoon played good enough to win one or even all of its last three games.
    “It is frustrating for sure,” said Blades head coach Dean Brockman. “It is disappointing. It is frustrating.
    “You can use a lot of different words to describe it. Really, it is all about lessons. For some of the younger guys that get into this position where you need wins and you need to win games at this time of the year it is a great experience for them.”
Pats captain Adam Brooks works magic in the offensive zone.
    Brockman said the Pats have a team that is at a more advanced stage than his side.
    “They’ve got how many wins for a reason, and they won the league for a reason,” said Brockman. “Certainly, they should have that ability to get to that level.
    “We are close to being out of the playoffs, so I mean certainly it is the tale of two different teams for sure.”
    The Pats return to action Wednesday, when they host the Broncos at 7 p.m. at the Brandt Centre.
    The Blades return home to host the Prince Albert Raiders (20-43-5-2) on Friday at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.
    “Whatever happens, we have to play hard in front of our home fans – give them something to come out to,” said Shynkaruk. “(We need to) finish the season hard.”

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