Sam Steel and Nick Henry know how tough it can be to reach the Memorial Cup tournament so both are taking full advantage of the opportunity presented to them this year.
Both were members of a Pats team that finished atop the WHL standings last season but ultimately fell short of qualifying for the tournament, losing to Seattle in six games.
On Wednesday, in the biggest game of the season thus far, Steel and Henry caught fire and helped lead the team to a 6-5 win ending the season of their inter-provincial rivals and WHL Champion Swift Current Broncos. Henry scored a hat trick and Steel tied a Memorial Cup single-game record with five assists.
“We felt that we should’ve won the league last year and that we were shortchanged so I think this has been smouldering in these guys for a year,” head coach John Paddock said following the victory.
Both teams knew a hot start is important in these type of elimination games, especially after the Pats’ slow one against Acadie-Bathurst and the Broncos having their season hanging on by a thread.
With 6, 484 fans — the most of the tournament so far — rocking the Brandt Centre, each team traded chances with the Pats and Broncos both looking for the all-important first goal.
After an Artem Minulin hooking penalty, Regina struck first.
Henry potted his first of the night on assists from Steel and Josh Mahura, who was also on last year’s squad.
That would be the lone goal scored in the opening frame, but the Pats found the twine again midway through the second, with Steel finding Cameron Hebig on another power play.
Swift Current answered later in the period, with captain Glenn Gawdin beating Max Paddock and scoring his first of the tournament.
Despite being down a man due to a penalty by Jake Leschyshyn, Steel once again found Henry who scored his second goal of the game shorthanded.
But it the Broncos didn’t wait to cut into the lead, with Beck Malenstyn scoring 21 seconds later.
Before the period ended, Steel found Henry for the third time to complete Henry’s hat trick.
“Sam’s a special player, I’ve played a lot with him for the last two years and we have good chemistry and we’ve built that and adding (Hebig) to the line has been a real nice addition and it’s been a lot of fun,” Henry said after the game, with his now five goals leading the entire tournament.
Fans knew a great finish could be on the way due to the previous meetings between the teams. The Pats and Broncos have played 14 playoff games over the past two seasons against one and other and the third period of this one lived up to the expectations.
Despite a goal from Bryce Platt to put the Pats up by three in the final frame, the Broncos weren’t going to go down without a fight.
“We never quit, our group never quits,” Broncos head coach Manny Viveiros said. “I was very proud of them, the way they responded being down.”
And respond the Broncos did.
Aleksi Heponiemi and Giorgio Estephan both scored in just under three minutes of each other to cut the lead to just one nearing the end of the game.
A costly too many men penalty allowed the pats to score one more time, this one courtesy of Libor Hajek, pushing the lead to 6-4 with just over one minute remaining in the game.
With Broncos goaltender Stuart Skinner on the bench for the extra attacker, Glenn Gawdin scored with 50 seconds remaining to get within a goal of tying the game but that’s as close as the Broncos would get.
Following the win, Steel — who is the tournament leader in points with 11 — says he enjoys playing in games where the stakes are higher.
“I love this kind of hockey and with the opportunity to be a champion and with so few games, it’s really easy to get up for,” Steel said.
While Regina moves on in the tournament, the Broncos season and some of their players’ junior careers came to an end at the Brandt Centre Wednesday.
“It goes by quick, I remember sitting in the room as a 16-year-old and the 20-year-olds saying ‘You’ve got to cherish every moment, it goes by quick,’” Broncos defenceman Colby Sissons said following the loss. “It’s a privilege to play in this league and you can’t take it for granted.”
For Skinner, who came over to the team from a trade with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, said he will always remember the season they had.
“I’ve never had so much fun in my entire life, going to Swift Current, getting the brothers that I have in that room and the family and all the laughs, all the smiles that I get going to the rink every single day, I’ve never been so happy in my entire life,” Skinner said.
“We’re always going to stay in contact and we’re family for life now.”
While the Broncos — the first Saskatchewan team to win the WHL championship since 1993 — season comes to an end, the other team from the province now turn their attention to the Hamilton Bulldogs.
The Pats defeated the Bulldogs 3-2 to open the tournament and will now meet them in the semi-finals Friday night at 8 p.m.
Due to the Pats win, the Acadie-Bathurst Titan finished in first after the round-robin games and automatically earn a spot in Sunday’s final.