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Kootenay Ice connections clash in Stanley Cup final

Sam Reinhart and the Florida Panthers will face Brayden McNabb and the Vegas Golden Knights
Florida Panthers center Sam Reinhart (13) vies for the puck against Washington Capitals left wing Conor Sheary (73) during the first period of Game 1 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)

The quest for the NHL’s Holy Grail has culminated in a clash between two former Kootenay Ice teammates.

The Florida Panthers and the Vegas Golden Knights will attempt to write their names in the history books as the Stanley Cup Final is underway in the American sunbelt states.

Defenceman Brayden McNabb and the Vegas Golden Knights have secured an early 2-0 series lead against Sam Reinhart and the Florida Panthers as the series shifts to the Sunshine State.

Both Reinhart and McNabb played their major junior careers with the former Kootenay Ice club in Cranbrook.

McNabb was an NHL-drafted defensive stalwart for the Ice’s 2011 WHL championship run, while Reinhart was a affiliate call-up just kicking off his WHL career.

Oh, and Nathan Lieuwen — president and owner of the Cranbrook Bucks —backstopped the club for that run, earning WHL Playoff MVP honours while posting a 2.24 Goals Against Average and a 0.923 save percentage in 19 games.

During that post-season campaign, the Kootenay Ice overcame the Moose Jaw Warriors in six games in the first round, then swept both the Saskatoon Blades in the semi-finals and the Medicine Hat Tigers in the conference final.

Facing off against the Portland Winterhawks, the WHL Championship went to overtime in three games, but the Ice won two of them and twice more in regulation to secure the title.

“It was just such a good group of people…we really bonded over that playoff run,” said Lieuwen, reminiscing on former teammates such as Sam Reinhart and Brayden McNabb, along with others such as Joe Antilla, Kevin King, Matt Fraser, Steele Boomer and others.

“…We saw a lot of adversity through the playoffs but found our stride in that second round and never looked back.”

Now, two of Lieuwen’s former major-junior teammates are competing for another championship at the summit of professional hockey.

McNabb, originally drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 2009 (third round, 66th overall), was part of a trade package to the LA Kings in 2014, before being picked up by the Vegas Golden Knights in the team’s inaugural expansion draft.

Reinhart, a highly-touted NHL prospect drafted second overall by the Sabres in 2014, was acquired by the Panthers through a blockbuster trade in 2021.

Lieuwen himself was a Sabres draft pick in the sixth round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and was able to continue his journey in professional hockey with McNabb already in Buffalo’s system, which was later complemented with the addition of Reinhart in 2014.

“It’s kind of cool that it’s those two,” Lieuwen said. “Brayden and I played together here and then again in Buffalo; we were roommates for a while there playing pro hockey.”

“Big fan of Brayden and he’s done so well for himself, and then interestingly enough Sam as well also went through Buffalo and saw him a bit in pro hockey again as well and it’s cool to see them both getting to the pinnacle of their sport.”

While Lieuwen didn’t hedge any predictions on the series outcome, he did offer some insight based on his positional expertise.

“I’ll go with a good goalie answer, that goaltending seems to be consistently the difference in playoffs and in championship hockey,” he said. “Obviously some good hockey is being played and it’s very competitive out there, but goaltending seems to be a pretty good trump card.”

The Panthers and the Golden Knights have thrived through the first three rounds of the post-season, even as both teams survived series that went the distance to seven games in order to secure a berth in the Stanley Cup final.

Reinhart has scored seven goals and tallied 11 points over the course of the Panthers’ playoff run, while McNabb has a pair of helpers in 16 playoff games for the Golden Knights.

No matter the end result, this year’s NHL champion will be a first-time Stanley Cup winner.

Trevor Crawley

About the Author: Trevor Crawley

Trevor Crawley has been a reporter with the Cranbrook Townsman and Black Press in various roles since 2011.
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