Lethbridge stuns Pats in Eastern Conference finals opener
|Jordy Bellerive, left, celebrates his goal with his Hurricanes teammates.|
REGINA – These Lethbridge Hurricanes will never say die.
If there is any team out of the four remaining in the WHL playoffs that could fold tent with every excuse in the book, it is the Hurricanes. During the post-season, Lethbridge has been riddled with injuries causing star players like captain Tyler Wong and Giorgio Estephan to log a huge amount of minutes per game. There are times it seems like netminder Stuart Skinner is seeing more rubber than a dead skunk on the Trans-Canada Highway.
In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Hurricanes won back-to-back seven game series over the Red Deer Rebels and Medicine Hat Tigers respectively overcoming four elimination games. When the Hurricanes hit the ice for Game 1 of the WHL Eastern Conference championship series on Friday night in Regina, they were playing their 15th game in 28 days.
|Pats W Dawson Leedahl knocks Canes captain Tyler Wong off the puck.|
To make things more challenging, the host Regina Pats finished first overall in the WHL with a 52-12-7-1 record, and they topped the final Canadian Hockey League top ten rankings released back on March 22.
When the dust settled on Friday, the Hurricanes players left the Brandt Centre ice surface happily saluting their small contingent of fans in the northeast corner of the building that were able to get tickets in the sellout crowd of 6,484. The visitors came away with a 3-1 victory to lead the best-of-seven series 1-0.
Forget the pre-series barbs that were traded between Pats head coach and general manager John Paddock and Hurricanes general manager Peter Anholt. Paddock claimed Wong jumped a foot in the air when he hit people. Anholt countered the Pats players took run at their opponents.
|Goalie Stuart Skinner dives to cover a loose puck for the Hurricanes.|
In Friday’s win, the Hurricanes did use smart tactics to defend against the Pats keeping them to the outside and clogging up lanes through the centre ice zone, but they won mainly because of heart. Anholt loves his teams that have heart, and he has to have that trademark proud grin going, when his club hits the ice.
Regina’s biggest downfall was the fact they didn’t score a lot more early, when they blasted out of the gates to start the contest. Just 70 seconds in, speedy winger Austin Wagner scored on a breakaway to give the hosts a 1-0 edge.
From there, the Pats controlled the first period outshooting the Hurricanes 14-8. However, that is also the problem when you play the Hurricanes. You might have them down, but they will take advantage of the slightest breaks to turn things around.
|Hurricanes D Igor Merezhko checks Pats C Wyatt Sloboshan.|
At the start of the second period, the Pats still appeared to have control but things changed at the 13:23 mark of the frame that sent a shock through the 21st sellout crowd between the regular season and playoffs at the Brandt Centre. A Pats defensive zone turnover resulted in Estephan wiring home a shot from the slot to tie things up at 1-1.
Early in the third, the Hurricanes gained only their second power-play chance of the contest. During the man advantage, a net scramble ensued in front of the Pats net, and Hurricanes forward Jordy Bellerive knocked home a loose puck to put the visitors up 2-1.
|Pats captain Adam Brooks darts up ice on a third period rush.|
On replays, Wagner gave Skinner a bump going into the goal before the puck crossed the line, which would negate the tally due to contact with the netminder. The goal was officially waved off due to the net being dislodged before the puck crossed the goal-line.
Still, the Hurricanes did whatever they needed to do to protect their slim lead. Wong would take a shot deep in the offensive zone and race back to deflect a Pats chance away in the defensive zone.
|Hurricanes D Brennan Riddle takes Pats W Nick Henry into the boards.|
Late in the third, Brooks had a beauty chance to score from in front of the Lethbridge goal, but he was turned away by Skinner.
Skinner used all of his 6-foot-4 frame to play big in the Hurricanes goal, and he made the acrobatic diving stop when he needed to. In total, he made 36 saves on the night.
The Hurricanes iced the win with an effort play. With 1:22 to play in the third and Brown pulled for an extra attacker for the Pats, Estephan stole the puck from Pats forward Nick Henry deep in the left corner of the Regina zone and popped in an empty-net goal to round out the 3-1 final.
|The Hurricanes celebrate their Game 1 win over the Pats.|
The Hurricanes came out with the win on Friday, because they made more effort plays than the Pats did. You keep wondering when the Lethbridge players will run out of gas, but they just don’t. Even with returning forwards Zak Zborosky and Zane Franklin from injury, the Hurricanes still dressed associate players Dylan Cozens and Shawn Harke.
The line of Wong, Estephan and Egor Babenko still played a lot, but their efforts never diminished as the game went on.
When the Hurricanes and Pats meet in Game 2 on Saturday in Regina (7 p.m. local time, Brandt Centre), it will be the Hurricanes 16th game in 29 days.
Will this be the game they hit the wall, or will they just keep going like the Energizer Bunny?
The Pats learned one thing on Friday that the slightest little letdown against Lethbridge can be costly.
Regina sports media a good group
During my travels through various WHL centres, I have often renewed ties with old friends and acquaintances that work for mainstream media outlets, which has been fun.
At all my stops, everyone has been good. Due to the Pats doing so well this season, I have made a number of trips to Regina, and I am impressed with how well everyone from the Regina sports media scene seems to get along. You could tell there is a good vibe between all the reporters.
It is also cool to see a large number of them out at Pats games. Due to cuts in mainstream media outlets throughout Canada, you don’t normally see this. Regina is an exception mainly due to the fact the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders call that centre home, but regardless, it is still nice to see larger numbers of media members from mainstream outlets out at Pats games.
Anyways on trips to Regina, it has been cool to interact with Rob Vanstone and Greg Harder of the Regina Leader-Post, Bianca Millions from CTV and Arielle Zerr from CJME, who are all the mainstays. I also get to see Rod Pedersen of CKRM and Warren Woods of CJME on a somewhat regular basis too.
I hope the upbeat vibe that is there can continue well into the future.
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