Friday, 5 May 2017

Thunderbirds gut out series opening 2-1 overtime win

Pats face an uphill battle losing third straight Game 1

Thunderbirds winger Donovan Neuls celebrates his OT winner.
    REGINA – The Regina Pats seem to like doing things the hard way in the post-season.
    For the third straight series, the Pats, who topped the WHL standings with a 52-12-7-1 mark, dropped an opening Game 1, and this time they face a different obstacle.
    On Friday night in the opening contest in the best-of-seven WHL Championship series, the Pats fell 2-1 in overtime to the visiting Seattle Thunderbirds.
    Just 14 seconds into the extra session, Thunderbirds winger Donovan Neuls knocked home a loose puck in front of the Regina net to send most of a sellout crowd of 6,484 home disappointed.
    Thanks the setback, the Pats will have to fight another uphill battle to pull out a series victory, but this time the challenge is different for the club the was rated first in the final CHL top 10 rankings released on March 22.
Donovan Neuls breaks up ice for the Thunderbirds.
    In the second round of the playoffs, the Pats dropped a 2-1 overtime decision to the Swift Current Broncos at home. The Broncos eventually took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven set before the Regina battled back with three straight wins to take the series 4-3 to advance to the WHL Eastern Conference championship series.
    In the opener of the Eastern Conference title series, the Pats again fell on home ice this time by a 3-1 decision to the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Lethbridge took a 2-1 edge in the best-of-seven set before the Pats rallied back with three straight wins to claim the series 4-2.
    The Broncos, who posted a 39-23-4-6 mark in the regular season, and the Hurricanes, who had a 44-21-4-3 record in the regular season, were both strong clubs, but both also hadn’t made far ventures in the post-season for some time.
    The Broncos were looking to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 2001 when they fell to the Pats. The Hurricanes were making their first conference final appearance since 2008 when they fell to the Pats.
    Regina is also making its first long run in the playoffs in some time. When the Pats won the conference final, it marked the first time they appeared in the league championship series since 1984.
Ethan Bear had a goal in his return from injury.
    Between 1984 and the current campaign, they only had one other conference final appearance coming back in 1993, when they were swept by the Broncos.
    In the Thunderbirds, the Pats are facing an experienced opponent when it comes to the post-season.
    Seattle made it to last year’s league title series dropping the best-of-seven set 4-1 to the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Thunderbirds dropped three straight overtime games to make things really hard to try and win that set.
    This season, the Thunderbirds returned 14 skaters and posted the league’s fourth best record at 46-20-4-2. You have to think they were heading into the playoffs looking to take care of unfinished business.
    Still, Seattle entered the playoffs with some adversity. They haven’t had the services of star overage goaltender Rylan Toth, who missed the entire post-season with a lower body injury. Carl Stankowski, who in his 16-year-old rookie season, has been spectacular in Toth’s place posting impressive stats in the post-season with a 13-2 record, a 2.39 goals against average and a .917 save percentage.
    He was solid on Friday making 31 stops, which included turning away Pats captain Adam Brooks on a first-period wraparound and stopping speedy Pats winger Austin Wagner on a short-handed breakaway in the third period.
Thunderbirds goalie Carl Stankowski stones Pats centre Braydon Buziak.
    The Pats finally beat Stankowski on a spectacular power-play goal from star offensive-defenceman Connor Hobbs with 7:49 to play. Hobbs snuck in the point and potted a backdoor feed from winger Dawson Leedahl which tied the contest up at 1-1 and eventually forced overtime.
    The Thunderbirds also started the playoffs without spectacular star captain Mathew Barzal with what the team said was an illness. The Thunderbirds said Barzal was being tested for mumps in early March. Barzal missed the Thunderbirds first round series swept of the Tri-City Americans and returned for the start of the Thunderbirds second round series with the Everett Silvertips.
    In 11 post-season games, Barzal has been on fire piling up five goals and 14 assists. He had helpers on both his team’s goals in Game 1 against the Pats.
Connor Hobbs, left, celebrates his game-tying goal for the Pats.
    The Thunderbirds also had questions going into the series opener with Regina as right-winger Keegan Kolesar was sitting out a one-game suspension for receiving a major for checking from behind in Seattle’s Western Conference series clinching 3-1 Game 6 victory over the Rockets in Kelowna on Sunday.
    Ethan Bear, who was named the WHL’s top defenceman, was returning to action after missing three games with a hand injury. The Ochapowace product blew home a power play goal from the top of the faceoff circle at the 4:55 mark of the second period to give Seattle a 1-0 edge and answer questions about his effectiveness.
    On top of all of those obstacles, the Thunderbirds got rid of some demons with regards to losing overtime games in the league title series from a year ago.
    To make matters worse for the Pats, they lost Brooks who was nailed in the open ice after cross the Seattle blue-line by Thunderbirds rugged defenceman Turner Ottenbreit early in the second period when the game was still scoreless. Brooks was held off the ice, had a cut on his head, looked groggy and didn’t return.
Pats captain Adam Brooks is tended to by trainer Greg Mayer.
    In a post-game press conference, Pats head coach and general manager John Paddock compared Ottenbreit’s hit to one thrown by former NHL Hall of Fame defenceman Scott Stevens. Paddock also didn’t give an update on Brooks’s future status.
    On replays, Ottenbreit’s hit appeared clean, and Brooks was at a size disadvantage in the collision, which helped cause the injury. Ottenbreit stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 200 pounds, while Brooks stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 177 pounds.
    The Pats won their second round series against the Broncos with Brooks missing the last five games of that set with a knee injury. He dressed for the last three outings of the series but stayed on the bench.
    Regina netminder Tyler Brown did his best to give the Pats a chance to win on Friday making 24 saves to take the loss in goal.
The Thunderbirds celebrate their overtime victory.
    The Pats now have their backs to the wall against an experienced opponent. They claimed Game 2 at home in both of their series wins against the Broncos and Hurricanes to put themselves in the fight in those sets.
    The pressure is on Regina to repeat recent history in Game 2 against the Thunderbirds on Saturday at 7 p.m. local time at the Brandt Centre before going back for three straight games at the ShoWare Center in Kent, Wash.

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