Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Can Pats or Broncos end the Saskatchewan drought?

Last WHL title win came in 1993, last Memorial Cup win in 1989

Sam Steel (#23) topped the WHL in scoring this past regular season.
    So how has it been since a Saskatchewan-based team last won a WHL or CHL championship?
    On both fronts, Brian Mulroney was still the prime minister of Canada when each of those events last happened. The Swift Current Broncos are the last Saskatchewan-based team to win a WHL title when they claimed a best-of-seven league championship series 4-3 over the Portland Winterhawks in May of 1993.
    The Broncos are also the last Saskatchewan-based team to win the Memorial Cup. At the 1989 Memorial Cup tournament in Saskatoon, Tim Tisdale scored the winner in overtime to lift the Broncos, who were that season’s WHL champs, to a 4-3 victory over the host Blades in the event’s title game on May 13.
    Before that Swift Current victory, the previous Saskatchewan-based club that won the WHL title and Memorial Cup was the rough and tumble Prince Albert Raiders in 1985.
    Mulroney served as Canada’s prime minster from Sept. 17, 1984 to June 25, 1993.
    To say Saskatchewan has endured lengthy drought in winning a WHL or CHL championship is definitely an understatement.
    Only two of Saskatchewan’s five major junior teams remain in the playoff hunt this year, and they are going to face each other.
Tyler Steenbergen charges up ice for the Broncos.
    On Thursday, the historic Regina Pats and the Broncos will face each other in Game 1 of a best-of-seven WHL Eastern Conference semifinal series at 7 p.m. at the Brandt Centre in Regina.
    That head-to-head series matchup means there will be a Saskatchewan-based team in the Eastern Conference championship series. The Broncos last made the WHL’s Eastern Conference final back in 2001, when they fell in six games to that year’s eventual Memorial Cup champion Red Deer Rebels. The Pats last visit to the Eastern Conference final was 1993, when they were swept 4-0 by the Broncos.
    On paper, both the Pats and Broncos have the potential to end the WHL and CHL title droughts for Saskatchewan.
    The Pats, who last won the Memorial Cup in 1974, finished first in the WHL with a 52-12-7-1 mark and topped the final CHL Top 10 rankings list that came out on March 22. This marks the third straight year Regina has advanced to the second round of the WHL post-season, and optimism has run high all season this Pats squad can make a playoff breakthrough.
    Going back to the regular season, the Pats enter their series with the Broncos having won 12 games in a row, which included a first round four-game playoff sweep of the Calgary Hitmen. Regina has it all on offence, defence and in goal. They have six players that have averaged at least a point a game this season and have scored over 30 goals.
    Arguably their two more dynamic players are star centres Sam Steel and captain Adam Brooks. During the regular season, Steel topped the WHL in scoring potting 50 goals and 81 assists. Brooks was right behind Steel recording 43 goals and 87 assists.
Captain Adam Brooks cuts to the front of the goal for the Pats.
    Winger Dawson Leedahl was third in team scoring with 35 goals and 54 assists, while offensive defenceman Connor Hobbs recorded 31 goals and 54 assists. Rookie winger Nick Henry was fifth in Pats team scoring potting 35 goals and 46 assists. Winger Austin Wagner was the sixth 30-goal man recording 30 goals and 36 assists in 64 regular season appearances.
    Veteran Tyler Brown had a solid regular season playing goal for the Pats posting a 33-8-6 record, a 2.64 goals against average, a .911 save percentage and five shutouts.
    The Pats also won seven of their eight head-to-head regular season meetings with the Broncos.
    The Broncos for their part were no push overs this season. Swift Current posted a solid 39-23-4-6 record in the regular season to finish third in the WHL’s East Division. The Broncos first round best-of-seven series with the Moose Jaw Warriors went the distance, and the Broncos claimed Game 7 on Monday in Moose Jaw by a count of 3-2.
    Swift Current’s first two forward lines are as good as you will find anywhere in the WHL. Tyler Steenbergen topped the Broncos in scoring with 51 goals and 39 assists. Finnish product Aleksi Heponiemi was second in team scoring with 28 goals and 58 assists. Overage forward Ryley Lindgren also had a solid campaign recording 27 goals and 47 assists.
    Russian product Artyom Minulin controlled the back end recording eight goals, 42 assists and a plus-28 rating in the plus-minus department in 70 regular season games.
    Swift Current’s biggest wildcard was the fact they acquired overage goaltender Jordan Papirny from the Brandon Wheat Kings on the WHL’s traded deadline day back on Jan. 10.
Jordan Papirny (#33) has been spectacular in goal for the Broncos.
    In regular season duties split between the Broncos and Wheat Kings, Papirny posted a 21-18-3 record, a 3.21 goals against average and a .907 save percentage.
    Last year, Papirny backstopped the Wheat Kings to a WHL title, and he was back in his stellar post-season form in the Broncos first round series win over the Warriors. 
    In the seven-game series, Papirny posted a 2.02 goals against average, a .947 save percentage and picked up one shutout. During an impressive WHL post-season career, Papirny has appeared in 56 playoff games posting a 37-19 record, a 2.77 goals against average, a .916 save percentage and two shutouts.
    The Pats and Broncos should put on a very entertaining series. The series winner has a good chance of going all the way, but there are no guarantees.
    There are still six other strong clubs remaining in the WHL playoffs, so there is still a long road to travel in trying to capture a league championship. As far as the Memorial Cup tournament goes that runs May 19 to 28 in Windsor, Ont., a WHL club has only managed to come out on top once in the last eight of those events.
    Still, it would be nice to see the Saskatchewan’s major junior droughts come to an end.

Back in the Express with a Blades look ahead

Blades D Evan Fiala and GM Colin Priestner hang out.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express giving an early look ahead at the Saskatoon Blades prospects for the 2017-18 campaign.
    I interviewed Saskatoon Blades general manager Colin Priestner regarding his outlook for the upcoming campaign that starts in September. The Blades are preparing for the WHL Bantam Draft, which is set for May 4 in Calgary.
    They are also going to have to make some decisions on the overage front. The Blades could potentially return six overagers to training camp next season, but will work to cut down to the league limit of three. The potential returnees include goaltenders Logan Flodell and Brock Hamm, defenceman Evan Fiala and forwards Mason McCarty, Cameron Hebig and Braylon Shmyr.
    My Express story can be found right here.

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