Tuesday, 16 May 2017

WHL Championship delivered thrills and drama

Title series between Thunderbirds and Pats was a classic

Keegan Kolesar skates with the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
    REGINA – Wow!
    That is the only word that was needed to describe this year’s WHL Championship series. The Seattle Thunderbirds and the Regina Pats put on a show and both were worthy of battling for the Ed Chynoweth Cup in a best-of-seven set.
    In a conclusion that was a fitting end for an overall thrilling 2017 WHL playoffs, Alexander True followed the rebound of his own shot to pop home the winner at the 12:36 mark of overtime to deliver the Thunderbirds to a 4-3 series winning Game 6 on Sunday at the Brandt Centre in Regina. Seattle claimed its first league title in franchise history with the 4-2 series win. The Thunderbirds date back to 1977, when the club was formed as the Seattle Breakers.
    At the start, the series had to be considered a tossup. The Pats finished first overall in the WHL with a 52-12-7-1 mark and were rated first in final Canadian Hockey League top 10 rankings, which were released on March 22. They were making their first appearance in the league final since 1984.
    The Thunderbirds finished fourth overall in the WHL with a 46-20-4-2 mark despite getting out to a slow start due to players getting back late from professional camps. They lost the best-of-seven league title series last year 4-1 to the Brandon Wheat Kings and returned 14 skaters who were looking to take care of unfinished business.
Alexander True scored the Thunderbirds biggest goal.
    Over the course of six games, the Thunderbirds and Pats showed their resilience. The teams were separated by the slimmest of margins, but in the end, the experience the Thunderbirds had likely helped push them to the title.
    Sunday’s Game 6, which was played before a sellout crowd of 6,484 spectators, captured the whole series perfectly. It seemed momentum wouldn’t stay with one side.
    After two straight losses, the Pats were looking to get the series back on even terms. Things started well for the hosts as star centre Sam Steel converted a nice feed from defenceman Josh Mahura at the top of the left faceoff circle on the power play to give the hosts a 1-0 lead.
    Seattle came with a huge push back and outshot Regina 10-3 in the opening frame. During that stretch of Thunderbirds pressure, it appeared Pats standout netminder Tyler Brown was going to steal the game as he made stop after stop.
    Thunderbirds winger Sami Moilanen found the equalizer on the 20th shot fired on goal from his side forcing a 1-1 tie at the 8:55 mark of the second.
    The contest proceeded to turn 16 seconds later when Thunderbirds defenceman Turner Ottenbreit received a major penalty for charging on a high hit he threw on Pats speedy winger Austin Wagner. Wagner left for the remainder of the second period and returned for the start of the third.
Austin Wagner led the Pats with 16 goals in the post-season.
    At that point, the Pats showed their “never say die” attitude. They pushed back and built momentum heading into the third period.
    In the third, the Pats hit a point where it appeared Game 7 was going to be a reality. With 8:10 to play in the frame, Mahura fired home a rebound from a shot by winger Jeff de Wit to give the Pats a 2-1 edge.
    From there, Wagner stepped into the forefront. He stole the puck from Thunderbirds defenceman Austin Strand, zipped into the Seattle zone on a breakaway and fired home his 16th goal of the playoffs to the top left corner of the Thunderbirds net with 6:48 to play. The Brandt Centre was rocking with the Pats now holding a 3-1 lead.
    This became the point the Thunderbirds experience showed through. When everything was rolling for the Pats, they found a moment to gain traction to turn the game around again and provide the final turning point for the series.
Tyler Brown’s rebound on this blocker stop turned out to be costly.
    Just 86 seconds after Wagner’s goal, the Thunderbirds caught a break, when a pass from Seattle defenceman Ethan Bear deflected off Mahura right to Thunderbirds overage winger Ryan Gropp, who was open in the right slot. Gropp cut to the middle and fired home a shot that cut the Pats lead to 3-2 causing a short hush to fall over the Brandt Centre crowd outside of the healthy contingent that was cheering for the Thunderbirds.
    The Thunderbirds proceeded to get on the power play, and winger Keegan Kolesar fired home a beauty feed from Bear in the right slot to force a 3-3 tie with 2:54 to play in the third.
    In overtime, the Pats had a great chance to get the winner, when a shot from standout rookie winger Nick Henry squirted out from the pads of Thunderbirds goaltender Carl Stankowski. Steel tried to tap home the loose puck, but he didn’t get enough force behind the jab allowing Stankowski to make the stop.
Thunderbirds D Ethan Bear (#25) wires a shot on goal from centre ice.
    That set the stage for True to play the role of Seattle hero netting the series winner. When Brown made a blocker stop on True’s first shot, the import from Copenhagen, Denmark, was smart to go hard after his rebound, because he had a lot of empty net to shooting the winning goal into.
    Brown was heroic in the setback making 39 stops. Stankowski turned away 28 shots to become the first goalie in his 16-year-old season to win the WHL title as a starter since Dan Blackburn in 2000 with the Kootenay Ice.
    Three games in the series were decided in overtime, and all three were played in Regina. The Thunderbirds claimed two of those games in extra time to erase the memories of dropping three straight overtimes to open last year’s WHL Championship series with the Wheat Kings.
Thunderbirds C Mathew Barzal cuts to the front of the Pats net.
    The Pats were also without captain Adam Brooks for Games 2 to 5 of the series. Brooks was lost after being on the receiving end of an open ice hit by Ottenbreit in the second period of Game 1.
    Without their captain, the Pats showed their grit winning two out of the four games Brooks missed.
    While Regina fans weren’t happy with Ottenbreit, the Yorkton, Sask., product, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 200 pounds, showed he was a sound and rugged defensive defenceman.
    He recorded seven goals, 25 assists, 92 penalty minutes and a plus-45 rating in the plus-minus department in 71 regular season games.
Sam Steel netted key goals for the Pats.
    If Ottenbreit played for the Pats, he would likely have been a fan favourite in Regina.
    Thunderbirds star centre Mathew Barzal was held pointless in Game 6, but he had his chances. The first round NHL Entry Draft selection of the New York Islanders was named the MVP of the WHL playoffs.
    Barzal missed Seattle’s first round series sweep of the Tri-City Americans due to illness, but he returned at the start of the second round and recorded seven goals, 18 assists and a plus-eight rating in 16 post-season games.
    With the WHL championship win, the Thunderbirds head to the four team Memorial Cup tournament, which begins Friday in Windsor, Ont., with the host Spitfires hosting the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Saint John Sea Dogs.
    The Thunderbirds open their schedule taking on the Ontario Hockey League champion Erie Otters on Saturday. The Memorial Cup runs through to Sunday, May 28 in Windsor.
The Thunderbirds celebrate their WHL title OT winning goal.
    Seattle will be in tough as a WHL team has only won one of the last eight Memorial Cup tournaments. The Edmonton Oil Kings are the only Memorial Cup winner coming from the WHL during that time span capturing major junior hockey’s biggest prize in 2014.
    No matter what happens in the Memorial Cup, the Thunderbirds and Pats showed in their league title series how impressive a product the WHL can be.
    They gave the circuit another classic championship series.

Ridley nears 3,800 games called

Bob Ridley calls a Medicine Hat Tigers road game in Saskatoon.
    When the next WHL season starts, iconic Medicine Hat Tigers play-by-play voice Bob Ridley will be closing in on calling his 3,800th game.
    This season, the Tigers advanced to the second round of the WHL playoffs, where they lost a heartbreaking seven game series to their Highway 3 rivals the Lethbridge Hurricanes. That contest was marked the 3,783rd game Ridley called as the voice of the Tigers including games in the regular season, standings tiebreakers, WHL playoffs and the Memorial Cup tournament.
    Since the Tigers began play in 1970, Ridley has called 3,363 of the 3,364 team’s regular season games, one standings tiebreaking game, all 399 contests the club has played in the WHL playoffs and all 20 contests the team has played in the Memorial Cup tournament.
    Ridley has called Tigers hockey games for 47 seasons, and for the majority of that time, he drove the team’s bus as well. If someone started next season calling an average of 80 games a season for 47 seasons, that person would still come up short of the total games Ridley has called.
    It is safe to say no one ever in the history of the WHL will ever pass Ridley’s total of game called as the play-by-play voice of one team.

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