Will Regina and Saskatoon meet in an all-Sask hockey clash?
Sports | by Gregory Beatty
Heading into the final weekend of the WHL season, the Regina Pats and Saskatoon Blades are on a collision course to possibly meet in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Pats, coached and managed by John Paddock, and with a high-octane offence led by Sam Steel and Adam Brooks, enter the playoffs as the #1 seed. The Blades, meanwhile, are battling the Calgary Hitmen for the #8 spot, and close out the season with must-win games against Prince Albert at home (March 17) and in P.A. (March 18).
Should the Pats and Blades meet in the playoffs, it would mark only the third time in the last 25 years.
To look ahead, I asked Pats’ and Blades’ play-by-play announcers Phil Andrews and Les Lazurak to breakdown their respective teams.
DREAM TEAM Along with Steel and Brooks, the Pats boast high-scoring forwards Dawson Leedahl, Nick Henry and Austin Wagner, and offensive defenseman Connor Hobbs. “This is my sixth year doing play-by-play, and the other Pat teams aren’t even close,” says Andrews. “This has been a special season, where you get maybe a once-in-a-generation team.”
BATTLE TESTED Since the start of the season, the Pats have been ranked one of Canada’s top junior teams. That’s put a target on their back, says Andrews. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a game where the Pats didn’t get the best effort from their opposition. It always seemed there was added emphasis with the opposing team looking to knock them down, which you would expect.”
DEADLINE DEALS In February, it was announced the Pats would host the 2017-18 Memorial Cup.
Being a finalist for that honour at the trade deadline put the team in a challenging spot, says Andrews.
“Most years when you have a team like the Pats who were sitting with six regulation losses at the trade deadline, you’re looking to add 19-year old NHL-drafted players who won’t be back next year. John had to do it differently by acquiring guys he knew would be back next season. So it wasn’t the typical front-runner trade deadline in Regina.”
The trades that were made, says Andrews, subtly altered the Pats’ identity.
“John is a veteran guy who has coached in the Stanley Cup final and won Calder Cups in the AHL, so he knows when you’re in the playoffs you’ve got to win tight one-goal games,” says Andrews. “The moves he made, such as acquiring defencemen Josh Mahura, Dawson Davidson and Jonathan Smart, bulked up the back end.”
PLAYOFF PROGNOSIS By virtue of finishing first in the WHL, the Pats have home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. But it won’t be a cakewalk, says Andrews.
“Should the Pats get by their first round match-up and Moose Jaw get past what looks like Swift Current, I think that will be the toughest test,” says Andrews. “Moose Jaw is really good up front, they probably have the best goaltender in the East in Zach Sawchenko. They’re well-coached, and have a great powerplay.
“Medicine Hat is a heck of a team too,” he says. “Their top nine forwards, I don’t know if there’s a better group in the league. You can’t forget about Lethbridge, either. They added Matt Alfaro and Zak Zborosky from the Kootenay Ice at the trade deadline, and together with Tyler Wong that 20-year old line has been dynamite. They’ve got a good goaltender in Stuart Skinner too.
“Then when you look at the Western Conference — with Prince George, Kelowna, Kamloops and Seattle, Everett, Tri-City as the top three in each division, and Victoria and Portland for the wild cards — there’s not a bad team out there.”
YOUTH MOVEMENT The Blades hosted the Memorial Cup in 2013. “They were a very old team then,” says Lazaruk, “so they had to rebuild with cast-offs from other teams, while trying to restock their stable of young players. They finally got to a point this year where they’ve got some quality veterans to go along with some good-looking young players.
They’re still young in comparison to other teams,” Lazaruk says. “But the gap in experience has greatly diminished.”
DEFENSIVE STRENGTH “The Blades are the WHL’s least prolific scoring team,” says Lazaruk. “But they’ve been able to do the job with much improved goaltending by Regina product Logan Flodell and core defencemen Libor Hájek, Bryton Sayers and Evan Fiala. The team is probably going to knock 75 goals against off compared to last year.”
Down the stretch, Lazaruk adds, the Blades have put all their offensive eggs in one basket with their top three scorers — Braylon Shymr, Jesse Shynkaruk and Mason McCarty — playing on one line.
INJURY BUG So far this season, says Lazaruk, the Blades’ have lost over 260 “man games” to injury and illness. “Most of the players who have been out have been forwards aged 19 and 20 who would be on your top two lines,” says Lazaruk. “Not having those players has restricted the Blades’ ability to score.
“If the team was averaging a half a goal a game more, they’d probably have another 12 to 15 points and would be challenging teams like Swift Current and Brandon higher up in the standings. So what Dean Brockman and the coaching staff have been able to do to get the team to this point is nothing short of miraculous.”
PLAYOFF PROGNOSIS If the Blades make the playoffs, Lazaruk doesn’t foresee a long run. Nonetheless, he thinks the team would gain valuable experience.
“A lot of people might say, ‘Big deal, the Blades make the playoffs and get knocked out in four straight by Regina,’” says Lazaruk. “But when you haven’t been in the playoffs since 2013, and have gone through three pretty hard years where your win totals were 16, 19 and 26, to be sitting at 27 wins [with three games to play], you’d like to have something tangible to show for that improvement, and that would be qualifying for the playoffs.” ❧