It’s been 44 years since the Pats last played in a Memorial Cup Final, but the 2018 version of the team will do just that following their 4-2 victory over the Hamilton Bulldogs Friday night.
One of the keys to the club’s tournament success is 17-year-old netminder Max Paddock.
Paddock was outstanding in Regina’s victory, saving 44 shots and helping the team punch their ticket to the tournament’s ultimate game.
Afterward, Paddock said it was one of the best days of his life.
“It’s up there for sure, definitely the best game of my life I ever played, especially at the stage it was at,” Paddock said. “It was just a good day today.”
And that good day was exactly what the team needed from their young goalie.
The Pats were looking for a fast start against a Bulldogs team trying to become the fourth straight OHL team to raise the cup.
Turns out that fast start came from Austin Pratt, who scored his first goal as a member of the Regina squad just over five minutes into the contest.
After scoring the goal, Pratt was a trending topic on Twitter in Canada, something the 18-year-old never thought he’d do.
“I’m used to seeing Sam Steel, (Nick) Henry, (Josh) Mahura and all that, it would be kind of cool to look on Twitter and see that,” Pratt said.
Despite a power play chance at the end of the opening frame, a couple of great saves from Hamilton goaltender Kaden Fulcher kept the Bulldogs within a goal.
In the second, the Pats needed their penalty killers to carry the load early with Liam Schioler getting a four-minute penalty for high sticking.
While the Pats killed off the long penalty, the Bulldogs did find an equalizer from a rocket of a shot by Nicolas Mattinen.
But Cameron Hebig, who the Pats acquired from the Saskatoon Blades around the deadline, gave the Pats another lead with his shot beating Fulcher under five minutes later.
“Goals in this tournament is probably my favourite goals and it’s so exciting to score in these kind of games and definitely nice to contribute like that,” Hebig said.
It was rough waters for the Pats to begin the third frame, with Matt Bradley starting the period in the box due to a roughing call.
The Pats penalty-killing unit would find a way to do it once again, which was a theme in this game — Hamilton did not score on any of their four power play chances.
With just under six minutes left in the game Steel, who is three points away from tying a tournament record, scored the game winner.
“Big goal, right time,” head coach John Paddock said following the win.
The goal didn’t come without some controversy, as it appeared Henry clipped the foot of the Bulldogs netminder.
“Took a little bit of a spill so my team went back and got into the net and tried to keep the puck out,” Fulcher said. “I think this is probably one of the worst feelings in the world right now.”
But the goal would ultimately stand and despite Will Bitten scoring just over a minute later to make it a one-goal game again, Jake Leschyshyn buried the puck in an empty net with 5.2 seconds left to send the Pats to the finals.
“All this stuff’s so surreal for us, we’ve been keeping in check pretty good and keeping focused on just hockey so we’re excited already but we know you just can’t get too nervous for this kind of stuff,” Mahura said. “We’ve been playing hockey our all lives so it’s going to be a fun game for all of us.”
John is Max’s uncle but at the rink it’s strictly a player-coach dynamic, and said the strong play of the young goalie in a few games last year gave the team the confidence it needed to make a trade to bring in some other players.
“Did we think he was going to be playing with us hosting the Memorial Cup? No, but it turned out that way.”
Hebig said the team, who last won the tournament in 1974, have been feeding off the doubters who don’t believe the team deserved to be in the tournament after losing in the first round of the WHL Playoffs.
“We took that as a motivation and kind of shove it back in their face so it’s nice to get that one for sure,” Hebig said.
For Mahura and a few others, they are taking full advantage of the opportunity in front of them after getting so close to the tournament last year.
“For the whole year, the loss in the finals last year was eating us alive all summer and into this year but it’s so fun to be here and be in this position,” Mahura said.
The team will now turn it’s attention to Acadie-Bathurst Titan, who defeated the Pats earlier in the tournament.
John Paddock knows his team is going to need to come out sharp against a tough Titan team.
“At least a game as good as tonight and probably harder or better, however you want to word it.”
Puck drop for the game is at 5 p.m. Sunday.