SWIFT CURRENT, Saskatchewan — Few teams have experienced the triumph and tragedy of the Swift Current Broncos.
On Sunday — the 29th anniversary of the franchise’s only Memorial Cup victory — the Broncos defeated the Everett Silvertips 3-0 to win the 2018 WHL championship in Game 6 before 2,890 fans at a sold-out Credit Union i-Plex.
“It was tough,” Everett head coach Dennis Williams said. “I thought our guys played hard. I thought we competed all year. I was proud of our effort.”
The league title was the third in Swift Current’s history. The franchise’s first — won in 1989 by arguably one of the best teams in league history — came just two years after four players died in a bus crash just east of town on Highway 1. The organization also won the WHL title in 1993 as Sunday’s victory ended a 25-year championship drought.
The Tips, meanwhile, saw arguably the best season in franchise history come to a close two victories short of their first-ever Memorial Cup bid. Everett won the U.S. Division and knocked off three division rivals in the Western Conference playoffs to earn its first conference championship appearance since its inaugural season of 2003-2004.
“It stings — there are a lot of emotions right now,” Everett forward and co-captain Matt Fonteyne said. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in for a lot of us, especially for us 20s… I’m sure it will take a little while for that, too. But we’re so proud of the group in there.”
Everett reached the final for the first time in 14 years largely on the strength of overagers and five-year performers Fonteyne, Kevin Davis, and Patrick Bajkov, and the goaltending of league MVP Carter Hart. That quartet, which rewrote Everett’s franchise record book during the regular season, will all move on after this season.
“It’s not the end of the spectrum we wanted to be on, but I thought we gave it our all the whole series and the whole year,” Hart said. “Right now it’s disappointing, but at the same time we can all be proud of what did here. We hadn’t made it past the second round in 10-plus years. We’re making strides in the right direction.”
Swift Current controlled the pace in the opening period as the Broncos outshot the Tips 11-6 and took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission.
Everett had a golden opportunity four minutes into the second when Sean Richards intercepted a Swift Current breakout pass. He skated in, but buried his shot in Stuart Skinner’s midsection as the Broncos maintained the two-goal advantage.
Martin Fasko-Rudas also had a great look immediately after exiting the penalty box at 16:30, but Skinner again made the stop.
“There are bounces here or there that could have gone either way,” Fonteyne said. “I’m proud of the way we played. We gave it our all. Skinner played a great game (and) a great series, and so did their team.”
Skinner finished with 31 saves for his second shutout of the season and his league-best sixth of the playoffs.
The Broncos struck early on the power play after Bajkov was whistled for slashing. Aleksi Heponiemi fed Giorgio Estephan in the slot, and Estephan potted the game’s first goal at 6:41 into the open net for a 1-0 lead.
Everett looked like it would escape the first period without further damage. However, the Broncos won a draw in the Everett zone with 10 seconds to go, and Aleksi Heponiemi redirected a shot from Sahvan Khaira with less than a second to play in the period for a 2-0 lead.
“We knew they would come out hard and we knew they had an opportunity to close out at home,” Williams said. “That goal late in the first – it was a tough call. I thought it was a slew foot (penalty) off the faceoff there and obviously the (puck) is in the back of the net that quick. And then we played catch-up against a very good hockey team. In the second and third I thought we played really good hockey, we just couldn’t find the back of the net and that’s the way it goes some nights.”
That was all for the scoring until Beck Malenstyn’s empty-netter with six seconds to go sent the arena into pandemonium.
Heponiemi finished with a goal and an assist to lead Swift Current’s offense.
The Broncos open Memorial Cup play on Saturday in Regina.
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