HURRICANES VS. PATS: PLAYOFF PREVIEW
This is our (mostly) comprehensive preview of the first round series between Lethbridge and Regina. Welcome! If you’re a regular, you may notice the cover image looks a little different. Considering it’s the WHL’s 50th anniversary and the Regina Pats are one of Canada’s oldest clubs, it seemed fitting to go with a vintage graphic design flare for the playoffs. Something different for a different season!
Inside, you will find a host of thoughts, analysis, and graphics (with a vintage flare) revolving around the Hurricanes, the Pats, and their upcoming series.
I’ve broken things down to help you consume the preview. First, we will take a look at the overall status of each club – how they performed throughout the season – and how they finished up. We then move into a positional breakdown.
I’ve written about the forwards, defensemen, and goaltenders. In each case, I’ve given a ruling on who I believe has the edge in that particular area. Finally, the preview concludes with some broad thoughts on how the series may play out, potential strategies, and my prediction of the winner.
Without further ado, our preview of the Hurricanes and Pats….
NOTE: While we know mobile is king… this post is so long and filled with so many graphics we strongly recommend viewing on a tablet, laptop, or desktop. It’s how it was intended to be viewed. There’s actually so much hi-resolution graphic content you MAY need to hit refresh once or twice before all the images load-in and get cached in your browser. I would suggest refreshing once or twice just to be sure. Our servers aren’t the best… but that’s what the budget demands.
assure you that when I first started formulating Canes Domain last April, I didn’t expect that twelve months later I would be previewing this playoff series. It’s not that I didn’t believe the Hurricanes could make the playoffs… but hosting as the Central Division champs? No way.
Despite my lack of faith, that’s exactly where we sit today. Lethbridge will host the Regina Pats Friday and Saturday night at the Enmax Centre for the first two games of their best of seven series. It’s Easter weekend so who knows how it will affect attendance, but I anticipate a raucous crowd regardless of the size. Lethbridge has waited a long time for this! On a personal level, I’VE waited a long time for this and I’m diving in head first.
The Pats and Hurricanes are entering this series with what I judge to be equal standing. Sure the Hurricanes are the technical favorite but, considering how both teams finished their seasons, I don’t really see one side as a clear favorite over the other. Since the Christmas break, the Pats and Hurricanes have nearly identical records (LET: 22-13-1-1) (REG:21-13-0-3).
As far as the most recent past is concerned, both teams finished their regular seasons’ with losses. Lethbridge dropped a decision to the Tigers in Medicine Hat and the Pats went down toothlessly to the big, bad, Brandon Wheat Kings. For what it’s worth, Regina’s loss had to have been more demoralizing considering there was still something on the line. With a win Regina could have moved past Moose Jaw and, in turn, played their first round series against the Prince Albert Raiders.
Will their disappointing performances in game 72 have any ill-effect come Friday evening? I wouldn’t count on it. Single games aside, both Lethbridge and Regina played solid hockey in their final ten games and the post-season is a brand new start. Lethbridge went 6-4-0-0 their final 10 while the Pats countered with a nearly identical 6-3-0-1 record of their own. Neither team backed its way into the playoffs and I can’t imagine either club is too high or too low on itself.
What should we expect from these two teams in a seven-game series?
It’s a great question but I’m not sure there’s a clear answer. There’re two ways to look at the numbers. Either focus exclusively at their season series stats or, instead, examine each team through the lens of 72 games. I’ve decided to walk down the middle and sprinkle in a little of both.
These two teams share a number of key characteristics. They are fast, boast a small but elite number of top line forwards, and both have young netminders dipping their feet in the WHL playoff waters for the first time.
The Hurricanes finished with ten more wins than the Pats and though we hear about both as “offensive” teams, recorded 61 more goals. In addition, the Pats also allowed more goals against than Lethbridge. Thirty-five to be exact. So while they did share a similar record down the stretch, there’s no denying that the Hurricanes were better over the full 72 games. The final goal differentials are somewhat startling, +86 for Lethbridge and -10 for Regina.
It’s interesting then that the Pats and Hurricanes share extremely similar shot statistics. Both averaged 33 shots-for per game. Nothing out of the ordinary. Further, Lethbridge allowed an average of 33 shots-against per game and Regina averaged 34. All together the statistical difference between the two teams (at least from a shots perspective) was one less shot-against per game. That’s it.
What does it all mean?
At least statistically, I believe it means the Hurricanes were a better or – if not better – more consistent team in key areas (ie. goaltending, special teams, etc). They executed when and where it really matters in the crucial moments and they did so with regularity.
Not exactly breaking any conventional wisdom with that analysis am I? The question then becomes, what changes when these two teams play one another? What is it about Regina that has given Lethbridge trouble? Have they really given the Canes trouble or is their record against Lethbridge a little deceiving?
Again, I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
It’s the core values and strengths the two team’s share that’s bred firewagon hockey. Theirs was a four-game series with no shortage of suspect goaltending, defensive breakdowns, and goals… lots and lots of goals. Was it fun to watch? You bet it was. Is it what I expect to see in the playoffs? I’m not really sure…
On one hand I feel as if we may see both coaches aggressively preach defense in the wake of their last regular season meeting. If that’s the case – we might see the two teams clog up the neutral zone and impose a “Cold War” of sorts – both sides afraid of what may happen if they opened things up. On the other hand, I’m not sure you can entirely contain the explosive nature of either team. They are what they are. Two teams with lethal offenses and occasionally turn-over prone defensemen. Try all they might, I’m not sure there’s any full containment for the unbridled offensive nature of either club.
Regina won the season series (including the final three games) ultimately recording a record of 3-1-0-0 against Lethbridge. The most memorable game was the final meeting in Lethbridge, a thrilling 9-8 shootout win for the visitors. It wasn’t an isolated incident.
All four games were high-scoring. In order, the final scores were 6-4, 5-3, 6-5, and 9-8, adding up for a grand total of 45 goals scored through four games. For those of you who enjoy numbers, that’s just over a 5.5 goals-per-game for both teams.
I wasn’t around in the glory days of the 80’s, but that’s the sort of hockey we’re talking about here.
I know the Pats won the season series, but in my humble opinion, it’s not a case of one team having another team’s number. Neither team has managed to dominate the other for a full 60 minutes – they’ve all been close games. They’ve also almost all been somewhat unconventional. Not only were the goal totals huge but they also came in condensed fashion.
On more than one occasion the Pats blitzed the Hurricanes for 2, 3 or 4 goals in rapid succession only for the Hurricanes to flip the script later in the game. Every single time the Pats would get way up in a game, the Hurricanes were able to recover and score a handful of goals of their own to make things interesting. My point here is not to make too much of the season series. Shootout loss aside, these two teams essentially split things right down the middle. I haven’t seen anything through their first four games to tell me one team will run away with the series.
Special teams may prove to be the difference in the first round but, looking back at the season series, they were pretty much a saw-off. Both teams had 14 power plays. The Hurricanes scored 5 goals with the man advantage and the Pats countered with 4 of their own (though the Pats did score a shorthanded goal as well). It might have been a saw-off through their season series, but expanding our view to the full 72 games, it’s clear which team holds the edge.
The Hurricanes were statistically better than the Pats when it came special teams this season. Finding a way to cut down on penalties will be a key to Regina having any hope in their series. While the Canes PK was never the class of the league, their PP was – and by a wide margin. Their dynamic puck movement is nearly impossible to defend.
On their powerplay, Lethbridge has forwards that are effective in the dirty areas, a constant net front presence, and defensemen capable of scoring from the point. In other words, it’s a near perfect combination. Opposing teams are either forced to collapse and concede shots from the point or pressure the defensemen and open up cross ice lanes for the forwards. Now that Estephan is back in the mix (he quarterback the 1st unit from the point), the Canes powerplay alone is poised to carry them on a deep run.
On the other side of the ice, the Hurricanes finished the season with some questionable play on their penalty kill. The Rebels and Tigers both carved the Canes PK to shreds in the final few games and it’s something worth watching heading into Friday. Will a week of video sessions and strategizing be what the penalty kill needs or is it simply a matter of execution? We will have to wait and see, but my money’s on the Hurricanes fixing their PK issues come Friday night.
Another broad-stroke pattern to watch for is who scores first. The team that’s scored first has won every single game between the Pats and Canes. It seems like a strange stat considering how many goals have been scored in their games, but apparently it’s meaningful to get the first one. I would argue the first goal might hold special significance for a Hurricanes team that is extraordinarily lean on players with meaningful playoff experience. I’m not saying they will be a nervous wreck or fragile, but considering the fanfare, eight-year drought, and overall deficit of playoff experience (more on that later), it might be crucial to get the opening goal come Friday.
Starting up front, there’s not much separating these two teams. The Pats boast a handful of the WHL’s premier scorers, including league leader Adam Brooks. Brooks centres a line with complimentary skilled wingers Wagner and Zablocki. It was a line that shredded Lethbridge in the 9-8 shootout loss and has the potential to repeat the feat. For his part, Zablocki recorded a hat trick in that game. Can he channel the energy from that performance into the series?
With Brooks and Wagner helping out, anything is possible.This trio is the heavy lifting offensive line for the Pats. If you tally up all their points, these three players have combined for 219. Incredible. Over the entire four-game season series, they combined for 9 goals. Either Lethbridge will have to contain them, or their top line (Wong, Estephan, Burke) will have to be equally as good.
The other big line in Regina consists of draft eligible centre phenom Sam Steel, twenty-year-old Cole Sanford, and Sean Richards. As an ex-Tiger, Hurricanes fans will be very familiar with Sanford. He was traded to the Pats at the deadline and has really bolstered their offense. The Sanford, Richards, Steel line has combined for 158 points – impressive in their own right.
With all due respect to the accomplishments of Adam Brooks and company, the Hurricanes boast an incredible top line of their own. When combined, Estephan, Wong, and Burke account for a grand total of 272 points – 53 more than the Brooks line (and that’s with Estephan missing a good chunk of games due to injury). Kisio hasn’t always played these three together (in fact, down the stretch we saw Millette at times take Wong’s place on the top line), but when they have been together, it’s been a light’s out trio.
With Gutierrez still out with a concussion and it looking more and more likely that he won’t return, Kisio has been forced to spread the wealth around to try keep guys like Babenko rolling. Wong has, at times, moved down to play with Lindgren and Egor. Ryan Vandervlis has also taken turns up and down the lineup and despite not posting big numbers, gives Kisio options.
It’s a prime example of how the Hurricanes forward units have proven to be quite fluid. We know that if and when the chips are down, Kisio always has the option to reunite Estephan, Wong, and Burke to try generate a few goals. It will happen at some point in this series. It’s just a matter of when and what the circumstances are.
For all the talk I did earlier on the 9-8 shootout game, remember that Giorgio Estephan was still out of the lineup at that time. With Gutierrez also out, Wong was forced to carry the load as a centre. He, Burke, and Kroeker were offensively spectacular in the last meeting between the Canes and Pats but were also atrocious in their own zone. Estephan’s inclusion changes all of that. He’s a difference-maker in his own right but the added bonus is his presence realigns the lines from top to bottom (in a good way).
After the top line, the offense tapers off very quickly in Regina. Jake Leschynshyn centres the third line with Adam Berg, Riley Woods, and Rykr Cole moving around as wingers. Leschynshyn and Cole were a combined -29 on the season – not numbers that instill confidence. It’s an area where the Canes may be able to counter with a more well-rounded line of Ryley Lindgren, Carter Folk and one of Vandervlis or Bellerive. Lindgren loves playing against his buddy Adam Brooks. So far this season he has already scored four goals against the Pats. Coincidence?
Third and fourth liners always seem to play a pivotal role in the playoffs. I like the composition of Lethbridge’s more and it’s part of why I give Lethbridge an edge in the forward department. We know the top lines on both teams will score their fair share of goals. It’s a foregone conclusion. When things are really on the line, I think Lethbridge has the greater potential for depth scoring.
If that doesn’t convince you, keep in mind that the Pats have four 50+ point getters…. Lethbridge has eight. Pankewicz (granted, a defenseman) is only 3 shy of 50 and Gutierrez would have shattered 50 points if he had remained healthy. The Hurricanes offense is the real deal.
Things get a little bit more interesting when we examine the respective defensive units. With the return of Washington Capitals prospect and team captain, Colby Williams from injury, Regina boasts an impressive group of blueliners. In fact, with Williams back in the mix, the Pats boast three NHL-drafted defensemen.
The aforementioned Williams has had his season devastated by injury and there is cause to believe his lacerated hand is still not 100% recovered. He is, however, good enough to play and will be a welcomed addition to Regina’s roster. Williams was injected into the Pats final few games and skated alongside young Jared Freadrich. From all accounts, it was a much-needed boost.
The Pats also have Connor Hobbs, another Washington Capitals prospect, and import Sergey Zborovskiy, a New York Rangers draft pick patrolling their blueline. Hobbs has been paired with James Hilsendager and Zborovskiy has spent a good chunk of his time with journeyman defender Chase Harrison. With Williams out for most of the season, Harrison really stepped up and filled defensive holes for the Pats. The 19-year-old native of Winnipeg is the only Pats defenseman to play all 72 games. He could be one of those blood and guts guys that helps propel Regina to a few wins.
For those counting at home, that’s three NHL-drafted defensemen in the Pats first three D pairings (one per pairing). I’m not sure who coach Paddock will roll out to shut down the Canes top line, but I imagine Williams, Hobbs, and Zborovskiy will be combined into pairings and double shifted in the key moments. For his part, Hobbs is the big point-getter of the group. Through 58 games, Connor tallied 41 points. Two of his 19 goals on the season came against Lethbridge. If they do well in this series, he will surely be part of the reason why.
This is where things get very interesting for the Hurricanes. It’s not that Lethbridge doesn’t have some great defencemen. They do. I won’t go as far as “concern”, but I will say the composition of their blueline gives me cause for question. It’s a fairly one-note blueline.
Outside of guys like Skeoch and possibly Pankewicz, the Canes don’t have many of what you would call ‘defensive defensemen’. In some ways, the Hurricanes’ defense is a double-edged sword. On one hand, they have guys like Nielsen, Atwal, Reagan, and Pankewicz who are all good-to-great puck movers. They put up big points totals, there’s no denying that. In Maple Leaf prospect Andrew Nielsen’s case, 70 points! Impressive stuff.
On the other hand, all four have also proven vulnerable to five-star turnovers. In fact, it’s their tendency for turnovers that I believe has helped the Pats succeed against the Canes this season. When playing teams of average speed, smooth skaters like Atwal and Nielsen are often able to recover from their own mistakes. That’s not the case against faster teams like Regina.
The numbers back it up to a certain extent. Atwal is a -4 in the season series. I love his game, it’s just a matter of he and other offensive minded blueliners managing their risk vs reward style circumstances. Regina will force turnovers and once they’re gone… they’re gone. Expect to see the Pats draw some penalties on Cane defenders desperately trying to recover. It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of how well Lethbridge can limit those situations and how clutch Regina is at capitalizing on them.
I should also mention that the Hurricanes have a darkhorse blueliner for fans to keep their eyes on. Brady Reagan loves playing against his former team. Reagan was acquired by Peter Anholt midway through last season in exchange for Taylor Cooper. Cooper wasn’t able to stick with the Pats as an overager this season and for his part, Reagan is doing all that’s been asked of him. In four games vs. Regina, Brady is a +9. That is a statistical anomaly well worth noting. At no point over the course of their four games (three of which Lethbridge lost) did Reagan go negative.
All things considered, the return of Williams pushes the Pats over the edge for me in the defensive department. Lethbridge has some nice pieces, but insofar as I value defense over offense on the blueline, I have to give the edge to Regina. They’re more proven, more experienced, and aside from a game-breaking offensive stud like Nielsen, don’t lack for anything.
Between the pipes, you have to give the edge to Lethbridge. I’ll just come right out and say it. The Hurricanes boast one of the WHL’s best goaltending tandems. The one-two punch of 19-year-old Jayden Sittler and 17-year-old phenom Stuart Skinner is tough to top.
Skinner finished the season with 44 games played, a .920 save percentage, and a 2.73 GAA – good for 11th in the league. Not only did Skinner have a good season, he played his best hockey in the final two months and capped it all off with a spectacular empty net goal last Friday night. The goal is a conversation for a different time. For now just know that Skinner is likely the guy that the Hurricanes will turn to in game one.
If for whatever reason Stuart Skinner trips out of the gate, the Hurricanes shouldn’t hesitate to turn to veteran Jayden Sittler. Sittler was the guy who really put the team on his back in the first few months of the season when Skinner was still finding his game. Sittler finished the season with 39 games played, a .905 save percentage, and a 2.94 GAA – good for 14 in the league. I’m not suggesting Skinner is on thin ice. I’m just suggesting that with Sittler there’s no need to fear going to the “backup”.
The Pats will counter with Tyler Brown and Jordan Hollett. Both are extremely young and inexperienced in the WHL playoffs. At 6’4 193lbs, Hollett is tracking to be a big stud netminder in the future. For now though, it looks as if Tyler Brown is the guy for Regina. Brown finished the season with 50 games played, a .909 save percentage, and a 3.15 GAA – good for 19th in the league. Not standout numbers, but also not terrible.
As an aside, Brown may not be as solidified as the wall-to-wall starter as you may think. He battled the flu down the Pats stretch run and Hollett performed admirably. He’s probably the goaltender of the future in Regina and it’s not out of the question that if Brown struggles Hollett gets a crack. When you’re talking about four goaltenders will very little playoff experience, anything is possible. Both Hollett and Brown have recorded wins against the Hurricanes this season (Skinner countered with the lone Hurricane win).
Despite four statistically great to average looking netminders between the clubs, at no point in the season series have any of the four stolen their team a win. At least to this point, it’s been all about the offense. That said, you have to think there will be a few tight games in this series. Based on the statistics and my gut instincts, I have to give the goaltending edge to Lethbridge.
There are a few interesting side plots to note in this series. Beginning with coaching, this will be Brent Kisio’s first time as a head coach in the playoffs. What that actually means I don’t know yet. He’s up against the older GM/coach Paddock. I will be watching closely to see the cat-mouse game those two play with their line-matching. Who will out-coach who? What sort of key in-game system changes will we see? So many questions, so few answers.
As Dylan Purcell noted in the most recent edition of Hurricanes This Week on 110% Podcast, I have to assume that Kisio may have a Calgary Hitmenesque “neutral zone trap” system somewhere up his sleeve. Will it work against the Pats? Is it something he wants to employ? Can this high-powered team execute it? I really don’t know. We will wait and see. I wouldn’t blame Lethbridge if they decided to slow the games down, play a neutral zone conscious style, and rely on their PP to haul the mail. That’s the sort of strategy that wins championships.
Kisio is inexperienced, but it’s fitting considering that his entire club is low on playoff experience. I’m not sure how much stock I put in “experience”. Like all intangibles, it’s hard to quantify what it means or what advantages it provides. It has to mean something or the media wouldn’t always trot it out there…right?
If you believe it’s a big factor, then you might like the Pats chances in this series. Regina has 154 games of playoff experience sprinkled amongst their forwards and defensemen. On the other hand, without Justin Gutierrez, Lethbridge has a grand total of 32 playoff games under their belt. I’m not sure how much stock to put in it, but when the difference is that great, I believe it’s certainly worth a mention.
If you made it this far… well done. This has been a beast of a preview and is the culmination of a few days of work. Thanks for reading!
Looking at alllll the stuff I wrote about, here’s how I see the series going.
I believe we are going to see big swings from period to period and game to game. There will be wide-open stretches and very cagey ones as well. I don’t see any amount of defensive awareness choking out the offense of either team. There will be at least one or two games where these teams combine for ten or more goals.
I also believe we will see some surprisingly tight contests. At some point, a goaltender is going to buckle down and steal a game for his team. As I already wrote, I give Lethbridge the nod in that particular department. I just believe that Skinner and Sittler are too good to not carry Lethbridge through a game or two.
Between that and what I believe to be a more well-rounded forward contingent, I do believe Lethbridge will find a way to win this series. My prediction is the Hurricanes win in either 5 or 7 games. Clinching in Regina is going to be difficult for this team. That’s where maturity and experience might really come into the Pats favor.
Only time will tell.
Regardless of the outcome, we get to enjoy playoff hockey once again. It’s all gravy from here.
I want to take a quick second to thank the Regina Pats organization for all the help they’ve provided me with logos and photography. They’ve been extraordinarily supportive of this website – on a level unmatched by any of the other clubs I’ve had the privilege to work with.
I mean that as sincerely as possible and I want to make sure everyone knows this preview couldn’t look the way it does without help from them. Without the wonderful photos of Keith Hershmiller, this would just be a loooooong ugly chunk of text.
ALSO, I couldn’t have done any of this with out WHL Stats. Paul and Jesse, thank you for your hard work and dedication. It allows someone like me to save countless hours on research – in turn – allowing for time to be spent on graphics and refining the writing. Amazing. Thank you.