Road to the Memorial Cup: WHL Championship tied 1-1
Just when it looked like the Swift Current Broncos had been completely corralled, the never-say-die Eastern Conference champions bucked their way out of a bind.
Key was Swift Current’s Lethbridge connection as former Hurricanes Giorgio Estephan and Stuart Skinner – acquired at the WHL Trade Deadline – contributed in colossal ways.
After his Broncos erased a 3-0 deficit, Estephan blew the roof off the old barn that is the Innovation Credit Union i-Plex, scoring 9:27 into overtime to claim a 4-3 victory in Game 2 of the 2018 Rogers WHL Championship Series, which now sits even as it shifts to the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s definitely one that we’re pretty fortunate to get – that goal and this win,” Estephan said Saturday night. “[Stuart] Skinner kept us in the game and that’s all you can ask from every player on the team – for them to do their part. When you’re down – however many goals – everyone just has to chip away.”
The overtime magic would not have been made possible if not for the late-in-regulation heroics of Tyler Steenbergen. Having scored the gold-medal winning goal for Canada at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship, the prospect of the Arizona Coyotes is establishing quite the penchant for coming up big in critical moments.
With 1:37 to go in the third period and goaltender Stuart Skinner at the bench for the extra attacker, Matteo Gennaro sent a pass from below the goal line to an eagerly-waiting Steenbergen, who made no mistake, snapping home a one-time shot from the low slot, beating Hart and knotting Game 2 at 3-3.
“It was unreal,” Steenbergen said. “The fans have been behind us the whole playoffs. They’ve been helping us out a bunch as a seventh man. To get that one for the fans to be going into Everett tied 1-1, it’s definitely huge.
“But [Skinner] is the reason why we won tonight. He was huge. He kept us in it. You have to give full credit to him.”
Gennaro wasn’t done. He had a glorious opportunity of his own on the ensuing shift, snapping a hard shot off the blocker-side post with approximately 35 seconds to play in regulation. The puck ricocheted off the iron, into Hart’s skate and almost found a way across the line. But the Sherwood Park product quickly reached back to swat it away with his stick, emphatically sending a wild Game 2 into overtime.
While the Steenbergen strike was the final event required to force extra time, the Broncos likely wouldn’t have been in that position if not for the outstanding play of their big man between the pipes. On multiple occasions, the Edmonton Oilers prospect came up massive to give his team the opportunity to claw back from a 3-0 hole.
“We never got off to the start that we wanted to,” said Manny Viveiros, head coach of the Swift Current Broncos. “We made a few mistakes and they capitalized right away. We had to play catchup right away. We were fortunate to get out of that first period only down 3-0. Our kids regrouped, they came back and they battled hard and we still had 40 minutes to chip away at the lead.
“Stuart Skinner was outstanding. After about the 10-minute mark of the first period, he gave us every opportunity to get back in the hockey game. Once we got our feet going again, we started going and playing – I was very, very happy with how played in the second period, third period and overtime.
“Everett played very well again tonight. They could have very easily won that game tonight. No question, we’re very fortunate, but we’re also very happy with the way we responded and battled. It’s something we’ve been doing all season and all playoff long. We just continue to keep working hard, working hard and this group really does believe. That’s the most important thing – you’ve got to be able to believe.”
With 27 seconds to go in the second period, Silvertips defenceman Gianni Fairbrother found himself in the sin bin after taking a tripping penalty. Immediately off the faceoff, Aleksi Heponiemi bobbled the puck at the blueline, leading to a Connor Dewar breakaway. The tenacious Everett penalty killer broke in alone on Skinner, but wasn’t able to slide the puck past the outstretched leg of the 6-foot-4, 200-pound puckstopper.
The product of Edmonton, Alta. picked up in the third period where he had left off in the second. Alongside defenceman Colby Sissons, Skinner combined for two game-saving stops 3:54 into the third period. With Riley Sutter all alone in front and cutting cross crease, Skinner sprawled out to turn aside the first glorious chance. But there for the rebound was Dewar, once again, who swatted it towards a seemingly open cage only to have the sticks of both Skinner and Sissons swing through to somehow prevent a fourth Everett goal.
That save gave the Broncos second life. Moments later, Sissons took care of business at the other end of the rink.
With 13:38 to go in the third period, the New Jersey Devils prospect hammered a heavy shot from high between the circles, beating Hart to make it a 3-2 game.
Those in the crowd wearing Everett green were suddenly chewing their fingernails.
If he hadn’t already done enough, Skinner still had a few more tricks up his sleeve. With about nine minutes to go trailing and still trailing 3-2, the lanky netminder stretched out with the glove hand, getting a small piece of the puck to turn away what looked like a sure goal, once again from the pesky Dewar, who continued to buzz the net.
Prior to the wild comeback from the home side, it looked like the Silvertips were set to run away with Game 2 after a strong start to the first period.
“We’re 1-1 on the road,” said Dennis Williams, head coach of the Everett Silvertips. “Most teams would be ecstatic. We can’t sit here and look at the negatives. If we do that, we’re going to be in trouble. We had a good hockey game. I thought our effort was good. Our guys kept playing.
“We can only learn from it. But we’re not sitting here feeling sorry for ourselves.”
Matt Fonteyne opened the scoring 3:14 into the Game 2. Taking a pass off the left wing from Sean Richards, the Everett captain wired a laser of a shot high past the glove of Skinner for a 1-0 Silvertips lead.
“We knew [the Broncos] were going to be a really fast team, they’re extremely skilled and very well coached,” Fonteyne said. “We knew they were going to be fast and make a big push. I think we’ve done a fairly good job the past two games of sticking to our game. We’ve had a few lulls here and there. But for the most part, we’ve stuck to our game the way we want to.”
The Broncos responded with great energy on the ensuing shift as Gennaro’s line cycled the puck, generating at least one quality scoring opportunity that Everett goaltender Carter Hart rejected.
With 9:49 to go in the first period, import forward Martin Fasko-Rudas extended the Everett advantage. Once again, from the left side, the Slovakian winger fired a shot in towards the Swift Current cage, finding a small hole in Skinner. The puck dribbled across the goal line to give the Silvertips a 2-0 lead.
Things went from bad to worse for the Broncos before the first period came to a close.
With 5:34 remaining in the first period, Saskatoon product Garrett Pilon spun off the left wing and sent a needle-threader to the backdoor for Riley Sutter, who directed the puck past Skinner. Just like that, the visitors from Washington State were out to a commanding 3-0 lead after 20 minutes of play.
Gennaro managed to give the home crowd something to cheer about midway through the second period, kick-starting the comeback effort for the hosts. After keeping the play alive inside the Everett blueline, the veteran forward went hard to the net, collecting a Kaden Elder rebound to make it a 3-1 game with 11:43 to go in the middle period. The marker brought a once palpably nervous Swift Current crowd back into the game.
With momentum shifting, the Broncos kept up the pressure in the minutes that followed. Josh Anderson created another quality opportunity, sending a long blast from the left point that redirected on its way to the net. Somehow, Hart was able to react and make a key stop to preserve the two-goal lead.
Physical play has been a clearly present piece to this point in the 2018 Rogers WHL Championship Series, and that fact remained true in Game 2. The heaviest of checks came with 12:30 to go in the third period. Broncos captain Glenn Gawdin unleashed a bone-rattling check on Dewar, sending the Silvertips alternate captain to the ground and eliciting an emphatic roar from the 2,890 in attendance at the Innovation Credit Union i-Plex.
By the end of the evening, Skinner finished with 40 saves to his credit, earning his 13th win of the 2018 WHL Playoffs. Hart made 34 saves in defeat.
Skinner and Estephan, along with forward Tanner Nagel, were acquired from the Hurricanes on January 9 in a blockbuster deal that saw overage goaltender Logan Flodell, rookie forward Logan Barlage, forward Owen Blocker and defenceman Matthew Stanley head to Lethbridge, along with a first-round pick (2020), a conditional second-round pick (2021) and a third-round pick (2020).
For the Silvertips, Saturday’s loss served as the Club’s first road loss of the 2018 WHL Playoffs.
Defenceman Ondrej Vala logged two assists for the Silvertips.
Gennaro, was undoubtedly the unsung hero for the Broncos, doing yeoman’s work on the game-tying and overtime-winning tallies in addition to getting his team on the board midway through the second period.
The best-of-seven Rogers WHL Championship Series now shifts to Everett for Games 3, 4 and 5.
Game 3 of the 2018 Rogers WHL Championship Series is scheduled for Tuesday, May 8 (7:05 p.m. PT) at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. The winner of the 2018 #WHLChampionship Series will go on to represent the WHL at the 2018 Mastercard Memorial Cup in Regina, Sask., from May 17 to 27.