Friday, 20 April 2018

Heponiemi delivers WHL Eastern Conference championship series opener to host Broncos

Finnish product’s first playoff goal downs Hurricanes 3-2

The Broncos celebrate Aleksi Heponiemi’s game-winning goal.
    SWIFT CURRENT, Sask. - Aleksi Heponiemi will never be mistaken for an “all about me guy.”
    On Friday night at the Innovation Credit Union i-Plex, the left-winger from Tampere, Finland, scored his first career WHL playoff goal, and it delivered his Swift Current Broncos to a 3-2 victory over the Lethbridge Hurricanes in Game 1 of the WHL Eastern Conference championship series. Game 2 of the best-of-seven set goes Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Innovation Credit Union i-Plex.
    During Friday’s encounter, the Broncos and Hurricanes were locked in a 2-2 tie, when Heponiemi blasted home the winning goal from the right slot with 8:49 to play in the third period to the delight of most of the sellout crowd of 2,980 spectators.
Aleksi Heponiemi had a goal and an assist on Friday.
    The star sophomore import forward now has one goal and 27 assists in 29 career WHL playoff games.
    After the contest, you wouldn’t have known Heponiemi scored his first career WHL playoff goal or that his tally was a game winner with the way he talked about it during the post-game media scrum.
    “Obviously, it feels good,” said Heponiemi. “It always good to get it at some point.
    “Obviously, I am going to shoot the puck a bit more. It is going to come, if it comes.
    “It doesn’t matter who scores the goal in playoffs. It is a team sport, and that is what it is all about is winning.”
    Heponiemi seemed more concerned about the fact his squad was outplayed by the Hurricanes over lengthy stretches of the contest. Lethbridge held a 41-30 edge in shots on goal, and the Broncos pulled out victory thanks to a 39 save performance from 19-year-old star netminder Stuart Skinner.
    “Obviously, the first game was huge to win,” said Heponiemi. “The way we won today wasn’t our best game. We have to be way better.”
Captain Jordy Bellerive (#15) drives to the goal for the Hurricanes.
    The Broncos thought they scored 65 seconds into Friday’s game, but the officials immediately called off the tally ruling one of the Swift Current players made incidental contact with Hurricanes overage netminder Logan Flodell.
    The Hurricanes controlled the majority of the play in the opening frame outshooting the Broncos 18-10. Skinner had to make a number of key stops including turning away Hurricanes left-winger Egor Zudilov on a turnaround shot near the end of the stanza.
    The Broncos capitalized on a break at the 6:15 mark of the second period to go ahead 1-0. Flodell accidentally slipped to the ice in his goal, and Broncos left-winger Cole Gable centred the puck to linemate Max Patterson, who lifted the game’s first tally over the fallen goalie.
Stuart Skinner makes one of his 39 saves in goal for the Broncos.
    The hosts increased their advantage to 2-0 at the 13:05 mark of the second on the power play, when Heponiemi fed a pass across the front of the Lethbridge net to linemate Giorgio Estephan, who popped home his fifth marker of the post season.
    The Hurricanes thought they scored with 8.3 seconds to play in the second, but the officials immediately ruled off that tally saying the puck was knocked to the ice by a Lethbridge player with a high stick.
    “Obviously the second period, I thought we didn’t play the way we needed to play,” said Hurricanes head coach Brent Kisio. “I thought our first and third period were much more of our team game. We fought back into the game.”
    Early in the third period, the Hurricanes capitalized on a break that went their way.
Calen Addison scored the equalizer for the Hurricanes in the third period.
    On a rush into the Swift Current zone, Hurricanes left-winger Taylor Ross had the puck poked off his stick by Broncos defenceman Noah King. The puck landed on the stick of Hurricanes defenceman Matthew Stanley, who quickly blasted home his second of the post-season to cut the Broncos edge to 2-1.
    With 10:04 to play in the third, Hurricanes sophomore rearguard Calen Addison, who turned 18 earlier this month, fired home a power-play goal from the point to force a 2-2 tie.
    After Heponiemi put the Broncos up 3-2, the Hurricanes didn’t go away. Working down low in the Swift Current zone, Hurricanes captain Jordy Bellerive had a beauty chance to score in close, but he slid the puck wide of the Broncos net.
The fans at the Innovation Credit Union i-Plex cheer a Broncos goal.
    Hurricanes overage left-winger Brad Morrison, who leads the WHL in post-season scoring, was stoned in close by Skinner a short time later.
    Broncos head coach and director of player personnel Manny Viveiros said Friday’s game could have easily had a different outcome.
    “We didn’t expect the game to be over after the second period,” said Viveiros. “We’ve been pretty resilient this year, when we have given up leads or been behind to get back in games.
    “I thought Lethbridge was really good tonight. They put us on our heels. They made us make mistakes.
    “We were fortunate tonight. Stuart Skinner played very well for us. A little bit more puck luck for Lethbridge, and I think they could have easily won the game tonight.”
The Broncos and Hurricanes did engage in some scrums.
    Flodell turned away 27 shots putting on a solid performance in goal for the Hurricanes. He arguably made the save of the night shortly after the third period started. The Regina product had slipped to the ice in his net but reached up to make a glove save on a point drive from Broncos standout defenceman Colby Sissons. That stop prevented the hosts from expanding the 2-0 lead they had at the time.
    The Broncos came into this series as favourites finishing second overall in the WHL’s regular season standings with a 48-17-5-2 record, while the Hurricanes were 16th overall with a 33-33-6 mark.
Stuart Skinner, left, and Colby Sissons celebrate the Broncos victory.
    The Hurricanes are a younger team that is in a reloading campaign, but they showed they are ready to play with the Broncos. Bellerive said his side wasn’t disheartened with Friday’s outcome.
    “We knew it was going to be a tough game obviously in their barn the first night,” said Bellerive, who had assists on both Hurricanes goals. “I think we have a lot of positives to look at. I think it puts us in a good spot moving forward.
    “We’re pretty positive. Obviously, we’re disappointed with the loss. We played a great game and a lot of positives to look on to moving forward.”

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