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Oil Kings emerge from mediocrity to take place among WHL title favourites

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The hottest team heading into the Western Hockey League playoffs is also one of its unlikeliest regular-season champions ever.

After four years of struggles, the reincarnated Edmonton Oil Kings are major players in the WHL for the first time, winning their final 11 games en route to a 50-15-3-4 record.

Since rejoining the league in 2007-08, the Oil Kings hadn't previously won more than 31 games in a season.

Edmonton's post-season run begins with an intriguing series against the defending league champion Kootenay Ice. The Ice lost five straight to close the season and finished at the bottom of a four-team clump separated by one point in the standings.

The Oil Kings are formidable at both ends of the ice, finishing second in the league in goals scored, goals allowed, penalty killing and power play efficiency.

They are led offensively by Michael St. Croix, who had 45 goals and 105 points in the regular season. Three other players ? T.J. Foster, Dylan Wruck and mid-season acquisition Tyler Maxwell ? average at least a point a game.

Defensively, Edmonton features a crop of NHL prospects that includes Mark Pysyk, Keegan Lowe and Martin Gernat. Goaltender Laurent Brossoit tied for the league lead with 42 wins and ranks second in goals against average at 2.47.

The Ice have had to retool a bit this season, but feature key returnees from last year's Memorial Cup team, including forwards Max Reinhart and Jesse Ismond and goaltender Nathan Lieuwen, who ranked in the top five in the league in goals against average and save percentage in the regular season.

An Edmonton-based WHL team hasn't won a playoff series since 1973, when an earlier incarnation of the Oil Kings reached the semifinals of what was then known as the Western Canada Hockey League.

The Ice entered the league as the Edmonton Ice in 1996 and played two seasons there before moving to Cranbrook, B.C., in 1998.

Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, the second-seeded Moose Jaw Warriors face the seventh-seeded Regina Pats.

The Warriors, led this year by Quinton Howden and mid-season acquisitions Cam Braes and James Henry, haven't won a playoff series since reaching the league final in 2006.

Regina leans heavily on high-scoring centre Jordan Weal, whose 116 points are more than double the total of anyone else on the team.

The resurgent Calgary Hitmen, the league's worst team last year, earned the third seed in the East this season and face the Brandon Wheat Kings in the first round. The balanced Hitmen have six 20-goal scorers, led by Jimmy Bubnick's 36.

The Wheat Kings, who will play home games this series at Winnipeg's MTS Centre, are paced by Mark Stone, the league's second-leading scorer with 123 points.

In the last East matchup, fourth-seeded Medicine Hat takes on fifth-seeded Saskatoon. Medicine Hat's Emerson Etem topped the league with 61 goals this season. To neutralize Etem, the Blades will look to Russian world junior goaltender Andrey Makarov.

In the Western Conference, each of the three clear top teams had relative struggles down the stretch, but will be heavily favoured to advance to the second round.

With a 50-point disparity in the standings, the series between top-seeded Tri-City and No. 8 Everett looks like a mismatch on paper, but the Silvertips played the Americans tough down the stretch and won't be a pushover.

The Americans feature three 100-point scorers, topped by Brendan Shinnimin, who led the league with 134 points. Shinnimin has 60 points, including 29 goals, in 23 games since Feb. 1. Patrick Holland and 50-goal-scorer Adam Hughesman are the other key threats for Tri-City.

Americans goaltender Ty Rimmer, acquired before the season from Prince George, led the league with a 2.43 goals against average and .922 save percentage in the regular season.

To stay competitive, Everett will rely on defenceman Ryan Murray, a projected top-10 pick in this year's NHL draft, and veteran goaltender Kent Simpson.

The Kamloops Blazers enter the post-season as the No. 2 seed, and take on the seventh-seeded Victoria Royals.

The Blazers have lost 10 consecutive playoff series since reaching the league final in 1999, and haven't won a single game in the post-season since 2005.

To reverse their fortunes, the Blazers will lean on top scorer Brendan Ranford and breakout Swiss rookie Tim Bozon. Rookie netminder Cole Cheveldave has been steady between the pipes.

Playoff hockey returns to Victoria for the first time since 1989, when the then-Victoria Cougars played on the island. The Royals franchise ????????? previously known as the Chilliwack Bruins ????????? has never won a playoff series.

Already the league's worst defensive team, the Royals traded away offensive star Kevin Sundher in January. They'll need top scorer Jamie Crooks to step up big to have a chance against Kamloops.

Despite losing stars Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter to the NHL from last year's Western Conference championship club, the Portland Winterhawks still compiled the third-best record in the WHL this season.

As the No. 3 seed in the West, Portland takes on sixth-seeded Kelowna in the first round.

Fresh off a short stint with the Calgary Flames, Sven Baertschi ????????? who had 94 points in 47 WHL games this season ????????? returns to Portland and pairs with Ty Rattie (121 points) to create perhaps the top one-two punch in the league.

The Rockets struggled with a young defensive group this season, but top scorers Shane McColgan and Brett Bulmer and 20-year-old goaltender Adam Brown give them a chance to stay competitive.

Vancouver and Spokane square off in what should be the closest series in the West. The fourth-seeded Giants rely on the scoring of Brendan Gallagher and the steady play of goaltender Adam Morrison. The fifth-seeded Chiefs have struggled with goaltending but feature a deep, balanced offensive attack led by defenceman Brenden Kichton.

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