The loudest building in the Western Hockey League will be rocking on Friday night as the Swift Current Broncos host Game one of the WHL final.
Swift Current scored three goals in 1:36 of the second period as the Broncos overcame a sluggish start to beat Lethbridge 5-1 in Game six of the Eastern Conference final to win the series 4-2.
They will now battle the Everett Silvertips for the Ed Chynoweth Cup starting Friday at the Innovation Credit Union iPlex.
It’s Swift Current’s first trip to the WHL final since winning the league championship in 1993.
“You could almost hear our own city (from Lethbridge) and how excited they are and how great they’ve been,” said Broncos Head Coach and Director of Player Personnel Manny Viveiros with a big smile on his face. “They’ve been I think a factor for us. Especially playing at home how positive and how loud they are. I can just imagine in Swift Current how excited everybody is.”
It has never come easy for the Broncos and again didn’t in Game six. Lethbridge came out flying in the first period and had them on their heels on the way to a 1-0 lead and a 20-2 shot advantage.
“It was a rough start,” said Broncos goaltender Stuart Skinner. “It didn’t look pretty at the beginning, but I’m happy we stuck in there. We bent a little but we never broke. We came out hard in the second period and third period. I know I had 20 shots in the first period, but after that I had six or seven shots the next two periods. It was a lot of fun. I had a blast especially with the teammates. I’m just excited we’re going to the WHL Final.”
After a first period on their heels, the Broncos started to play their game in the second period. Shift by shift they began to bring a more aggressive and physical game to the Hurricanes and it paid off with three goals in a 96 second span midway through the period to turn Game 6 on a dime.
“I thought we looked really tentative and nervous at first,” Viveiros said. “Stu played outstanding in the first period and kept us in the game. I told the kids we’re three rounds in deep and one win from the WHL final and that’s not who we are again. We’re a team we play better when we’re skating, we’re aggressive, we’re moving and we’re having fun. Our big guys got us going again. We started establishing a forecheck and we got going again. Very proud of our kids how they handled the situation after the first period.”
The scoring started when Artyom Minulin won a battle on the right wall and set up Matteo Gennaro who turned and fired his pro-level shot to the top corner for his first goal of the series.
It then only took 29 seconds for the Broncos to grab the lead as Tyler Steenbergen knocked down big Igor Merezhko to set up Aleksi Heponiemi. The flashy Finn then used great hands to put a quick backhand under Logan Flodell’s armpit for a 2-1 Swift Current lead.
A quick hooking penalty threatened to delay Swift Current’s momentum before Beck Malenstyn completed the three goal run by using his speed to create space and rip home a shorthanded goal for a 3-1 lead. It was Malenstyn’s first goal since Game 1 of the first round and a crushing blow to Lethbridge’s momentum.
Both Gennaro and Malenstyn had their first goals of the series and their line with Kaden Elder got their game back on track.
“That line was really important for us in those first two series wins for us against Regina and Moose Jaw,” Viveiros said. “They got off to a slow start in this series and we at times had to break them up. Going back to Game five we said we’re going to put you guys back together again and you guys have to figure it out. Just by working hard and playing the game the right way you’re going to be rewarded for it. I’m really happy for Beck Malenstyn because he’s been a bit puck shy or unlucky at times. He scored a couple big goals with his work ethic.”
Swift Current’s offensive leader in the series may have been Giorgio Estephan who struck again in Game six with his seventh goal of the Eastern Conference final, deflecting in a Glenn Gawdin pass on an early third period power play for a 4-1 Broncos lead. It was the first goal he had scored in Lethbridge and put the game out of reach.
“Just so happy,” Estephan said. “We battled so hard in these playoffs… it’s good to be rewarded. We’re going to the championship. It doesn’t get much better… we played a solid game the last two periods. I think we really stuck with it and it kind of shows that we’re relentless.”
Once the Broncos got a lead they gave a skilled Lethbridge team very few opportunities the rest of the way.
“We kept them in front of us,” Viveiros said. “We cleared the zone as quick as possible trying to play fast. Every time we got the puck in deep we made sure they had to come through five games. Our guys were really determined to make sure it was difficult for them to get back in our zone.”
Malenstyn then rounded out the scoring with an empty-net goal as the Broncos completed a turn-around after a shaky first four games of the series.
“I think we just woke up,” Skinner said. “Instead of focusing on… a couple cheap shots here and there we just focused on playing our game, putting the puck in the net and doing what we do best. The first four games we were off to a slow start, but we’re very mentally strong as a group. Once we turned it around there’s no stopping us.”
Skinner made 33 saves in the win, while Logan Flodell stopped 22 pucks in the final game of his WHL career.
Swift Current was able to contain a strong Lethbridge power play killing off all five Hurricane opportunities with the man advantage.
The win marked the end of an emotional series for players from both sides who had been part of a blockbuster trade between the two teams at the deadline. Old friends turned to enemies on the ice and then friends again in the handshake line.
“It was a gruelling series,” Estephan said. “You didn’t see a lot of friends out there. They want to beat you and you want to beat them… they showed a lot of class to me in the lineup. I’m grateful for their friendships that I had when I was (in Lethbridge). Obviously it was a little bit emotional. It was a tough series for both of us and at the end of the day… that’s when you become friends again.”
Now the Broncos will take a day to savour the victory before focusing their energy on the Western Conference Champion Everett Silvertips.
“We’ve got to get some rest,” Viveiros said. “We’ll take a day off to relax a little bit… it’s just normal routine. Our kids have been really good in that we don’t like too much time off. Obviously. For us it’s a good couple days to make sure we get some good rest.”
Everett closed out their series against Tri-City coming back from down 5-2 to win 6-5 in overtime. The Silvertips finished only five points behind the Broncos in the standings and boast one of the CHL’s best goaltenders in Carter Hart. The first ever series between the two teams will start on Friday and Saturday in Swift Current.