WHL playoff recap: Pats and Thunderbirds set to square off for WHL title

(photo courtesy Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds)

Regina 7 @Lethridge 4 (Regina wins series 4-2)

Game story:

-Give the Regina Pats credit, they do not make anything easy on themselves. They fell down 3-1 to Swift Current before coming back to win three straight and set a date with the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the east final. Then they fell down 2-1 to the ‘Canes before winning a couple in a row to set up Sunday evening’s game six in Lethbridge. The Hurricanes jumped all over Regina, getting out to a 3-1 lead, before the Pats roared back to life, scoring seven of the game’s eight final goals to win 7-4 and capture their first Eastern Conference title since 1984, when Calgary’s team was called the Wranglers and there was a still a WHL club in Winnipeg. This sets up a WHL Final between a team (Seattle) that has never won in their 40 years and a team that has not won in 38. The Pats were led to victory by timely saves by Tyler Brown and three points from Wyatt Sloboshan.

Egor Babenko got the Enmax Centre rocking as he picked off a Regina pass in the Pats zone and burst in alone on Brown, beating him on the backhand. Jordy Bellerive then got the crowd ecstatic as he bought time in the high slot before wiring a wrist shot that Brown never saw to make it 2-0 on the power play.

Ryan Vanverlis then nearly broke the arena clear from its foundation with another power play goal as he found a loose puck near Brown’s glove and banged it in. Just 23 seconds later though, Robbie Holmes cut the lead to two as Robbie Holmes poked the puck away from a Lethbridge player and squeezed a shot past the surprised Stuart Skinner for his second of the playoffs. Regina rode that momentum switch to another goal as a Josh Mahura with a heap of traffic flying at Skinner, cause the goalie trouble and the puck ended up in the back of the net to make it 3-2 just 10:46 into the game.

Giorgio Estephan wired home a one-timer on the power play for the ‘Canes third goal on the man advantage just 1:05 into the second and it looked like they might pull away again with a 4-2 lead. The Pats just would not go away though as they proved with a power play marker of their own from Filip Ahl. The Swedish import spun into some space off a nice feed from Sloboshan and he found an opening in Skinner’s equipment for his fourth of the postseason. Nick Henry then completed the comeback with 2:20 left in the second as he pounced on a rebound near Skinner and took the road less traveled, wrapping around the net and sneaking the puck past Skinner’s right pad to make it 4-4.

Jeff de Wit then showed off his big-game experience as he capitalized on a nifty passing play between Sloboshan and Adam Brooks and beat Skinner for his third goal of the series and the Pats first lead of the contest at 5-4. A healthy Austin Wagner then added some insurance for Regina as a slick pass in front from Ahl eluded Skinner and he banged it home for his 14th of the playoffs and fourth of the series. Sloboshan then added an empty netter to make it a 7-4 final.

Tyler Brown came back from being badly outplayed earlier in the series to holding his own against the talented Stuart Skinner. He ended up stopping 152 of 168 for 0.905 percent. Skinner, meanwhile ended up with a 0.916 save percentage in the playoffs and 204/224 or 0.911 percent in the East final.

Regina’s power play is not that much hotter than it was last series as they converted just three of 18 chances for 16.7 percent. Lethbridge scored on five of their 19 chances on the man advantage, but three of those came in the first period of game six. They finished with a 26.3 percent for the series.

Health:

-Matt Alfaro and Josh Tarzwell were out for Lethbridge. Dawson Davidson did not play and Jake Leschyshyn is done for the year for Regina.

Game 1: Lethbridge 3 @Regina 1

Game 2: Regina 3 Lethbridge 2 (OT)

Game 3: Lethbridge 3 Regina 1

Game 4: Regina 6 @Lethbridge 2

Game 5: Regina 5 Lethbridge 3

Game 6: Regina 7 @Lethbridge 4

Leading scorers:

Regina: Sam Steel (8-16-24 points), Dawson Leedahl (11-9-20 points), Connor Hobbs (4-15-19 points)

Lethbridge: Tyler Wong (11-13-24 points), Giorgio Estephan (11-13-24 points), Egor Babenko (10-13-23 points)

Seattle 3 @Kelowna 1 (Seattle wins series 4-2)

Game story:

-The Seattle thunderbirds are WHL Western Conference champions for the second year in a row. One season after taking out the Kelowna Rockets in four games, they dispatched them in six, to get a chance at redemption in the WHL final. While the Series-clinching victory in game four last year, was a dramatic double-overtime affair, this time around it was a methodical strangling by Seattle’s team-defence. They allowed just 18 shots from the vaunted and desperate Rockets and only allowed one goal on seven Kelowna power play chances. Mathew Barzal and Donovan Neuls each had two points to lead the way in Seattle’s 3-1 game six victory in Kelowna. It was a series that started out run-and-gun and tightened up as it went along. That favoured Seattle as the Thunderbirds sports a plethora of forwards who commit to the back-check and take away the rush, which was Kelowna’s most potent weapon. Carl Stankowski turned away 17 of 18 in the game and was the star of the series for Seattle as he stole them a game or two when they were not outplaying Kelowna as a whole.

Kelowna actually started the scoring with their lone goal of the night. Lucas Johansen moved the puck over to Nolan Foote in the slot and the rookie wired a shot past Stankowski for his second of the series.

Seattle tied the game in an odd way. 4:56 into the second period, Alexander True and Cal Foote were tangled up in fornt of Kelowna goalie Michael Herringer and that distracted the netminder enough that he drifted way to far to his left and gave Seattle d-man Austin Strand, essentially, an open net to shoot at. Strand filed it for his fourth of the postseason, tying the game. True kept making his large presence felt out there as a back door pass from Neuls on the power play, got deflected by the skate of Gordie Ballhorn right to him in front of the net. He fought off two Rocket defenders in retrieving the puck and beating Herringer for his third goal in two games. Kelowna looked to have tied the game moments later but Reid Gardiner was tangled up with Stankowski when Calvin Thurkauf put the puck in so goalie interference called the play back. Seattle then added some insurance later in the frame as Aaron Hyman somehow found Mathew Barzal all alone at the back door and the N.Y. Islanders’ prospect buried it for the 3-1 lead.

Seattle then held off the Rockets as they threw everything they had at them late, preserving the 3-1 win and a second-straight Western Conference title. A team from the U.S. Division has won the west for six of the past seven seasons now, with the lone B.C. victory being by Kelowna in 2015.

Stankowski stopped 176 of 193 shots he faced in the series for a 0.912 save percentage. Not bad for a rookie who is playing in his 16-year-old season. The much older Michael Herringer, meanwhile stopped just 127 of 147 shots for a 0.864 save percentage.

Kelowna’s power play, which operated at 37 percent in their series with Portland cooled off against Seattle to the tune of 10/42 or 24 percent. Seattle, meanwhile had 28 fewer opportunities but still converted on eight of them for 33.3 percent.

Health:

-Ethan Bear was again scratched with what is believed to be a broke hand. Rylan Toth also missed the game, his status is still unknown going forward. Braydyn Chizen remains Kelowna’s most notable scratch. Keegan Kolesar was given five and a game for his hit on Devante Stephens. We will have to wait and see if he will receive a suspension that will effect his playing in the WHL final.

Game 1: Seattle 5 Kelowna 4

Game 2: Kelowna 4 @Seattle 3(OT)

Game 3: Seattle 2 @Kelowna 1

Game 4: Kelowna 4 Seattle 2

Game 5: Seattle 5 Kelowna 3

Game 6: Seattle 3 @Kelowna 1

Leading scorers:

Kelowna: Reid Gardiner (15-13-28 points), Calvin Thurkauf (8-13-21 points), Dillon Dube (7-14-21 points).

Seattle: Keegan Kolesar (9-13-22 points), Donovan Neuls (6-12-18 points), Mathew Barzal (5-12-17 points).

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Brandon Rivers

Longtime Portland Winterhawks' blogger on hodgesheroes.blogspot.com. I also write for SB Nation on the for the Seattle Sin Bin at http://www.sonicsrising.com/seattle-sin-bin. Further, I have a Seattle-sports podcast over at 206sportsjocks.com Originally from the Portland area, now living in Seattle. Proud husband and Father.