REGINA – Hamilton Bulldogs captain Justin Lemcke started to rant, but then thought better of it. His first few words spoke volumes – ironic considering he was speaking in a hushed monotone.
“Usually a pick on a goalie is … I don’t know,” he said. “They won the game. I don’t have much to say.”
The next words he was probably going to say before he switched gears was “a penalty.”
The Bulldogs lost a chance to go to the Memorial Cup final with a 4-2 loss to the host Regina Pats on Friday. And controversy played a pivotal role.
The goal that stood as the winner happened moments after Pats winger Nick Henry contacted the leg of Bulldogs goalie Kaden Fulcher as he went to play the puck. His clearing attempt landed on the stick of Pats captain Sam Steel.
With Fulcher out of position and defencemen Riley Stillman and Justin Lemcke and winger Nicholas Caamano sliding to cover the net, Steel scored with 5:55 remaining to put the Pats up by two goals.
Will Bitten replied 1:13 later, making Steel’s goal the winner. Jake Leschyshyn scored into the empty net with 5.2 seconds left as Steel got an assist to up his tournament-leading total to 13 points.
“Big goal. Right time,” Pats coach John Paddock said.
That’s not what Fulcher thinks, of course.
When he saw the replay of Steel’s tally on the video scoreboard, he raised his arms and smiled in disbelief.
He was almost as incredulous after the game.
“It’s probably the toughest way to lose a hockey game,” said Fulcher, who made 20 saves in the loss. “I’d rather one go in from the red line, a clean shot that beat me, than something that might be considered controversial go in.
“It’s one that you’re always going to be wondering about and it’s tough because you can’t get it back. It’s going to haunt you for a while.”
The loss will also haunt the Bulldogs because they had been getting better as the tournament went on.
Both their losses came to the Pats – a team that lost in the first round of the WHL playoffs and had been idle for 45 days.
The first defeat to Regina came last Friday when Henry scored with 32.6 seconds remaining in a 3-2 decision.
That outcome, or not beating the Acadie-Bathurst Titan by two goals in their final round-robin game on Tuesday, prevented the Bulldogs from not getting a direct bye to the tournament final.
Bulldogs coach John Gruden said repeatedly in the lead up to the semifinal he thought playing the extra game would be advantageous for his team.
His reasoning was his workmanlike group was better suited to keep sharp in game action. Gruden’s theory seemed to have some validity considering last Friday’s loss to Regina was Hamilton’s rustiest performance of the round robin.
While his rationale proved incorrect, Friday was not a night for revisionist history.
“Our second and third games were really good,” Bulldogs centre Robert Thomas said. “We could have played a lot better tonight. As [the tournament] went on, we got better.”
“The same team beat us twice,” said the emotional coach.
Much like in the first meeting between the two teams, goaltender Max Paddock was a big reason why.
Max – the 17-year-old nephew of the Pats coach – stopped 44 shots, including 21 of 22 in the third period as the Bulldogs tried to tie the game.
After two shoddy performances in between the Hamilton games, Max was the first star on Friday.
“He was awesome,” Pats over-age winger Cameron Hebig said. “It’s games like that when you need your goaltender to step up and he did that.”
“It comes down to we ran into a hot goalie,” Stillman said. “We couldn’t buy the back of the net.”
Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Nicolas Mattinen scored Hamilton’s first goal, while Pats’ Austin Pratt opened the scoring 5:22 into the game.
For Pratt, who grew up in Iowa and Minnesota, being in the Memorial Cup final holds extra significance. His father is Canadian and his grandfather fought in the Second World War.
“It definitely means more than just a game for me and my family,” said the 18-year-old winger. “It’s going to be a really special day.”
That day comes Sunday as the Pats play the Titan for the Canadian major junior championship.
After losing in the WHL final last season, they’re looking for some form of redemption.
“For a lot of guys that were here last year, it literally means everything,” defenceman Josh Mahura said. “We were so heartbroken last year to lose in the finals and to be back here is a surreal feeling.”
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are left to lament that they lost – and how they lost.
Part of that was the third Regina goal – a goal that perhaps shouldn’t have been.
“I was a little disappointed. I ran over to the ref there and gave him some lip,” defenceman Jack Hanley said. “He clipped him for sure.
“At the same time, we should have buried our chances and the game could have been a whole lot different. That’s the way hockey works. It’s never perfect.”
Some players and Gruden tried to think of the positives. After all, it was a season that saw the Bulldogs win the OHL championship and knock off the CHL’s best team, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, in the final.
But Lemcke, who saw his junior hockey career come to an end, struggled to follow suit.
“I don’t think anyone in the room will ever get over this,” he said.
NOTES: The Humboldt Broncos organization was honoured prior to puck drop. Team president Kevin Garinger and Carol and Lyle Brons, parents of athletic therapist Dayna Brons, were given a standing ovation by the crowd of 6,484 when they were welcomed to centre ice. Brons was one of 16 people killed in the team’s April 6 bus crash.