A pair of highly skilled teams are two wins away from hoisting the Memorial Cup as the host Regina Pats and OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs clash in semi-final action tonight at the Brandt Centre.
The Pats defeated the Bulldogs 3-2 to kick-off the centennial celebration of the CHL’s annual national championship last Friday as Nick Henry buried a rebound with 33 seconds remaining in regulation to send the Regina fans home happy.
The Bulldogs have since rallied for consecutive victories, defeating the Swift Current Broncos 2-1 on Monday before scoring a 3-2 win over the Acadie-Bathurst Titan a night later.
After a slow start, the real Bulldogs appear to be making their presence felt in Regina as John Gruden’s club looks to keep right on rolling before a hostile crowd tonight.
“They beat us, it was the first game of the tournament,” said the second-year Hamilton head coach. “Now we’ve settled in and I think the last two games everyone saw more of what the Hamilton Bulldogs are all about and our style of play.
“This is an unbelievable opportunity to play against a tough team in their own building to continue advancing in this tournament.”
The Pats enter action boasting the most dominant offensive line in the tournament thus far as the connection of Henry (5-2–7), team captain Sam Steel (1-10–11) and overage winger Cameron Hebig (3-2–5) has found the scoresheet in each of the team’s three games.
“We have a plan in place,” added Gruden of defending against the big trio, “but that’s one focal point for us. That’s a dangerous line and they score the majority of their offence and we’re going to have to make it really difficult for them.”
Hamilton counters with three fairly strong forward units headed up by star centreman Robert Thomas (2-1–3) who will likely have to contend with Steel throughout the game as Regina holds last change as the home team.
“It’s good to have, there’s no question,” said John Paddock of last change for his club. “Until last game the so-called home team had won every game, so it helps a little bit, for sure.
“I think the visiting team can sometimes set the tone if they keep sending somebody out on the ice,” he added. “If Sam (Steel) plays against Thomas that’s fine with me, and if he doesn’t I don’t mind another matchup. Thomas coming out on the ice all the time isn’t going to keep Sam off of it.”
The Pats followed up Friday’s opening night win against Hamilton with a high-scoring 8-6 loss to the Acadie-Bathurst Titan on Sunday before narrowly defeating the WHL rival Swift Current Broncos by a score of 6-5 to eliminate them from the tournament on Wednesday.
Vegas Golden Knights prospect Jake Leschyshyn is eager to get back out in front of the home crowd tonight for another playoff atmosphere at the Brandt Centre.
“Throughout the playoffs we were a successful team at home and that’s due to the fans and the atmosphere that they brought every night,” he reflected. “We enjoy playing in front of them and it’s good to know they’re going to be there for us the rest of the way.”
The Pats reached the semi-final in their last hosting of the tournament in 2001, falling to the QMJHL champion Val-d’Or Foreurs by a score of 5-4 in overtime. Regina had started the 2001 tournament 0-2 before rallying for consecutive wins including a tie-break triumph over the Ottawa 67’s. Rugged defenceman Barret Jackman scored late in the third period of the semi-final to give the Pats a 4-3 lead before Val-d’Or’s Simon Gamache tied the score with 48 seconds remaining in regulation and scored the game winner at 11:46 of overtime.
Tonight’s matchup marks the first Semi-Final between the OHL champion and the host team since the Plymouth Whalers and Vancouver Giants clashed in 2007. Vancouver took that contest by a score of 8-1 before defeating the WHL champion Medicine Hat Tigers in the Championship Final.
Tonight’s game gets underway at 8:00pm MT/10:00pm ET on Sportsnet, TVA Sports and NHL Network. Fans can also tune in online on CHL Live by visiting chl.neulion.com.