Former Red Deer Rebel Jeff de Witt now playing with the Regina Pats will play in the Western Hockey League final against the Seattle Thunderbirds. (Photo by Jeff Stokoe/Advocate staff)

Pats, Thunderbirds set to meet in WHL final

John Paddock is finding it a little more difficult to get around town in recent weeks.

The head coach and general manager of the Regina Pats has been stopped on the street and recognized at restaurants during his club’s dramatic march through the Western Hockey League playoffs — something that wasn’t always the case.

“The fans have certainly gravitated towards the team,” said Paddock. ”There’s a buzz in the city.”

The Pats host Game 1 of the WHL final against the Seattle Thunderbirds on Friday in a series that will see one of two long-suffering fan bases repaid for their dedication.

Regina hasn’t even made the title series since 1984, with its last win coming as part of the Pats’ Memorial Cup victory in 1980.

The Thunderbirds, meanwhile, hosted the Memorial Cup in 1992, but have never won the WHL crown. Seattle qualified for the league final in 1997 and 2016 only to fall short of raising the Ed Chynoweth Cup.

“Our players love playing in front of those fans in Seattle,” said Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk. “They’d really like to give back by winning and let the fans enjoy the moment.”

Seattle swept the Tri-City Americans and Everett Silvertips in the first two rounds of the playoffs before downing the Kelowna Rockets 4-2 the WHL’s Western Conference Championship series to move within a step of the Memorial Cup later this month in Windsor, Ont.

After pushing the Calgary Hitmen aside in four straight to open their post-season, the Pats had a much tougher road.

Regina, which beat Seattle 6-3 at home in the teams’ only meeting this season on Oct. 30, trailed its second-round series with the Swift Current Bronces 3-1 before storming back to win in seven games.

“Series are supposed to be tough,” said Paddock, whose team then dispatched the Lethbridge Hurricanes 4-2 to win the East bracket. “We were shorthanded and managed to battle through.

“It showed us you have to play simpler and smarter, and it takes everybody.”

The Thunderbirds didn’t have the same type of adversity in the playoffs, but dealt with players missing throughout the season.

Star centre Mathew Barzal, the 16th pick in the 2015 NHL draft, was with the New York Islanders early in the year before playing for Canada at the world junior hockey championship, while rookie goalie Carl Stankowski has been pressed into action with Rylan Toth out injured.

“We have a ton of character on this team. It’s amazing,” said Thunderbirds forward Keegan Kolesar, a 2015 third-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets who leads Seattle in playoff scoring with nine goals and 13 assists in 14 games. ”There have been so many times in the season where guys have gone down through injuries, suspensions and whatnot.

“The next guy just steps up.”

Memorial Cup hosts next year, the Pats have been paced by centre Sam Steel’s eight goals and 16 assists through 17 playoff games along with goalie Tyler Brown’s strong play.

“Every series you play gets more and more difficult,” said Paddock, whose head coaching resume includes stints with the Winnipeg Jets and the Ottawa Senators. ”This is going to be the best team we’ve faced.

“Seattle is a big team. They’ve pretty well cruised through the playoffs.”

On the other side, the Thunderbirds are going to have to be wary of the Pats’ speed.

“They’re a good transition team,” said Konowalchuk, who played nearly 800 games with the Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche before retiring in 2006 because of a heart condition. ”They move the puck up well.

“We need to make sure everybody in our lineup is doing their job.”

Kolesar said it will be important for the Thunderbirds to stay within their structure, something that didn’t happen in a five-game defeat at the hands of the Brandon Wheat Kings in last season’s WHL final.

“Hopefully we can come away with a better ending this time,” said the Winnipeg native. ”We have a lot of confidence right now.

“I’m sure Regina does, too. They’ve come this far. Now it’s just down to playing.”

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