PORTLAND, Ore. - After the Edmonton Oil Kings and Portland Winterhawks delivered one of the most dramatic final series in Western Hockey League history last season, it only seems appropriate that they come together for an encore performance.
The Oil Kings and Winterhawks resume their budding rivalry Friday, when the best-of-seven WHL championship series kicks off in Portland.
In a back-and-forth series in 2012, the Oil Kings took Game 7 at Edmonton's Rexall Place, 4-1, to win their first title in the franchise's fifth season. This time around, the Winterhawks have home ice advantage.
"To go from a seven-game series last year and to get right back at it this year, it's like we're going right into Game 8," said Edmonton coach Derek Laxdal.
The matchup pits Portland's top-ranked offence (334 regular-season goals) against Edmonton's stingy, league-leading defence (155 goals allowed). The Oil Kings have shut out 16 opponents in the regular season and playoffs, but Portland has scored in 147 straight games.
Despite the accolades on the offensive side for the Winterhawks, a solid four-man defensive corps led by top NHL draft prospect Seth Jones and first-round pick Derrick Pouliot helped set a new franchise record for fewest goals allowed in the regular season (169).
On the flip side, the Oil Kings have a balanced offensive attack that saw six players reach the 60-point plateau in the regular season, led by Michael St. Croix's 92.
In goal, Portland's Mac Carruth and Edmonton's Lauren Brossoit each rank near the top of the league in goals against average and save percentage in both the regular season and playoffs.
In three post-season rounds, Edmonton has outscored its opponents 71-25, while the Winterhawks hold a 66-26 edge. Something has to give.
"Both teams have good forwards, a big, strong defence and a great goalie," said Portland forward Ty Rattie, who leads the WHL with 15 goals and 31 points in the playoffs. "I think it's a pretty even matchup."
St. Croix feels that neutral observers might underestimate the Oil Kings' chances to repeat.
"They did have more points and they're the No. 1 seed," St. Croix said of the Winterhawks. "We're on the road to start, so I guess in some ways we're the underdog."
There hasn't been a finals rematch in the WHL since 1975 and 1976, when the New Westminster Bruins won consecutive series over the Saskatoon Blades. The Oil Kings aim to be the first team since the 1994 and 1995 Kamloops Blazers to capture two straight league titles. The Winterhawks seek their first WHL crown in 15 years.
The familiarity between the franchises extends well beyond last year's series. The Winterhawks became the first American-based major junior team when the original Edmonton Oil Kings moved to Portland in 1976.
The Winterhawks are in the WHL final for the third straight year and 11th time overall. They're just 2-8 in their prior appearances, though, with the wins coming in 1982 and 1998. Portland went on to win the Memorial Cup in 1998 and also won as the host team in 1983.
Laxdal was a 16-year-old rookie on that 1983 Portland team, and he's now pursuing a second straight WHL title as head coach of the Oil Kings. Portland's acting head coach, Travis Green, was Laxdal's teammate for two seasons in the early 1990s with the AHL's Capital District Islanders.
The connections extend to the current rosters as well. Winterhawks captain Troy Rutkowski is from Edmonton, as are teammates Adam De Champlain, Shaun MacPherson and Layne Viveiros. Edmonton's Trevor Cheek is the only current WHL player from the Portland area, hailing from adjacent Vancouver, Washington.
"Being in the finals is special, but playing against your hometown team gives you that extra motivation to stick it to them a bit," said Rutkowski.
Both teams figured to be in the mix for a return trip to this year's final, but the Winterhawks are probably the more unlikely participant. Five of Portland's top seven forwards from last season moved on to professional hockey. In September, it seemed unlikely that Carruth would return for his overage season, but the Chicago Blackhawks sent him back to Portland for a fourth run at a league title.
Adding to the difficulty were devastating sanctions handed to the club in November for violation of league rules regarding player benefits. Head coach and general manager Mike Johnston was suspended for the remainder of the season and is barred from being around the team until after the Memorial Cup.
Despite the adversity, the Winterhawks went 57-12-1-2, setting franchise records for wins and points. Forwards Brendan Leipsic and Nicolas Petan shared the league's scoring title with 120 points each, with Rattie finishing third at 110.
The Oil Kings, meanwhile, seemed set all along for a run at a second Memorial Cup berth. Most of the team's key players from last season returned, and they added Cheek and defensive stalwart David Musil in mid-season trades with the Vancouver Giants.
After spending the early parts of the season in a muddled race at the top of the Eastern Conference, the Oil Kings pulled away to take the top spot with a 51-15-2-4 record. Edmonton cruised through two rounds in the playoffs, but needed seven games to get past the Calgary Hitmen in the Eastern Conference final.
The Oil Kings will be missing captain Griffin Reinhart from its defensive corps, as he's out for the series with a torn foot ligament. The late regular-season return of Czech blueliner Martin Gernat helps mitigate that loss, as he leads the league with a plus-19 rating in 16 post-season games.
Nine different Oil Kings have compiled between 14 and 22 point in this year's playoffs, led by St. Croix's 10 goals and 12 assists. Forward Edgars Kulda (14 points) is the only Oil King rookie among the team's top 16 scorers in the playoffs, demonstrating the team's reliance on veterans.
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