By Lethbridge Herald on April 21, 2017.
Team opens WHL conference final tonight in Regina
Lethbridge Herald – Regina
What a time to be a hockey player.
Or in the case of Stuart Skinner, what a time to be a goaltender who has been a monumental piece of the puzzle in backstopping his team through two seven-game series in order to advance to a conference final.
As the Lethbridge Hurricanes skate into Game 1 of their Western Hockey League Eastern Conference final against the Regina Pats tonight at 7 p.m. at the Brandt Centre in Regina, that’s the mindset of the 18-year-old Canes’ puck stopper from Edmonton.
“Personally, I’m pretty excited,” said Skinner, who helped rally the Hurricanes from a 3-1 series deficit against the Red Deer Rebels in the first round before doing his part in a Game 7 overtime thriller Tuesday night in Medicine Hat to send the Central Division champs packing and send the Canes east to Regina.
“It’s definitely been a fun road. It’s been an exciting time. Playoffs, for me, is the best time of year and the best time of my life. Especially the last game and the last series, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. There are no words to describe the feelings you get and the adrenaline you get, it’s incredible to move onto the next round. Hopefully after we win this round, I have the same feeling. So that’s what we’re going for.”
While Skinner has backstopped his team into the third round for the first time since 2008, an affiliated player has made the most of his post-season time since being called up prior to playoffs.
With the Canes trailing the Tigers 4-3 late in Game 7 Tuesday night, last year’s first-round draft pick Dylan Cozens scored with 2:43 remaining to set the table for Hurricanes captain Tyler Wong’s overtime heroics.
“It’s been a really great experience,” said Cozens, who turned 16 Feb. 9 and has two goals and five points in seven post-season games this spring. “I didn’t play that much in the first series, but just to ease my way in. So far I’m having a lot of fun and it’s just really a great experience.
“I was pretty nervous in a Game 7 like that, all these guys with their season on the line. It was pretty scary, but it was the same game I’ve been playing my whole life so I just went out there, took it shift-by-shift and played my game.”
The storybook ending to the Highway 3 rivalry behind them, the Canes now look further east to the Pats, who finished 52-12-7-1 to place first in the regular season.
“They’re a really good hockey team, obviously,” said Hurricanes head coach Brent Kisio. “They’re the number one team in the league all year long in the CHL. They’re well-coached, they’re deep, they can score, they can move the puck and they’ve got a good goalie. They’re the best team in the league for a reason. It’s going to be a big challenge.”
The turnaround is minimal from their seven-game grind against the Tigers, but with the marathon series win comes a little momentum to ride into round three.
“Absolutely,” said Skinner. “We have confidence going into the next series. We know how Regina works and we know how we can play and win against them. Especially playing against a good team like Medicine Hat. They came out hard, they played well in our the series and we were able to come out with the win. I think the way Medicine Hat plays, there are a couple of similarities with the way Regina plays as well.
“So we know what we’re up against and we definitely have confidence, especially winning the last game and how we know we can get through anything as a team and how we have that heart and that character to go through anything, I think that gives us a good advantage.”
The Eastern Conference final is also a rematch of sorts with a Pats team that knocked off the Canes in five games in the first round of playoffs last year.
For players on last year’s team, that hasn’t been forgotten.
“We definitely want to get them back for what they did to us last year,” said Skinner. “There are a few emotions with that. They got us last year and they played well against us. They’re a good team. They’re a good team and we respect them. Hockey is about respect.
“I think we’re going to come in knowing what we’re up against. They’ve beat us before, so that’s going to give us some momentum and something to play for. We definitely know we want to give it back to them.”
However, Kisio preferred to wipe the slate clean.
“Honestly, I’ve been asked that a few times,” he said. “It has nothing to do with last year. Our team is a different one from last year. There are a few of us that were involved in that series, but most of our team wasn’t. We’ve played two rounds of playoffs already. Last year is last year, and to be honest, we’ve forgotten about last year.
“We can take things from Round 1 and 2 of this year. Last year keeps getting brought up, but we’ve won two rounds this year against two good hockey clubs and we’ll reflect on those rounds.”
Memories of past years lingering or not, Skinner’s recipe for success against a Pats team that boasts the likes Sam Steel (19 points), Connor Hobbs (14), Dawson Leedahl (14), Austin Wagner (11) and Nick Henry (10) was simple.
“We just have to play as a team,” he said. “It comes down to a full 20 guys playing as hard as they can for the full 60 minutes,” said Skinner. “For me, personally, I just have to stop the puck and just do my job and play the way I can play. I definitely think we have a really good chance to beat these guys.”
The Hurricanes wrapped up the Medicine Hat series without defenceman Calen Addison and forwards Ryan Vandervlis, Zak Zborosky, Zane Franklin and Matt Alfaro.
Kisio said it doesn’t look like any of those players will be ready for the start of this series.
“We’re pretty banged up and it doesn’t look like we’re getting any bodies for this round, too. Our roster is our roster.”
But the Canes coach has liked what he’s seen from his existing roster in the absence of the regulars.
“One thing I like about our group is that we stay even keel at all times,” said Kisio. “We believe in ourselves and if we’re still alive in the series, we know we have a chance.”
Game 2 goes Saturday night at the Brandt Centre before Games 3 and 4 head to the Enmax Centre Tuesday and Wednesday night, both games at 7 p.m.
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