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Emotions sure to run high in Game 1 of Eastern Conference Final

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Mitch Moroz and Hitmen defenceman Kenton Helgesen on Oct. 12, 2012.

- When the puck drops for Game 1 of the WHL's Eastern Conference Final tonight at Rexall Place, the Edmonton Oil Kings might have to temper their enthusiasm a bit.

"Both teams are going to have to," laughed Head Coach Derek Laxdal after Thursday's morning skate at Rexall Place. "The kids are excited to play and we've both had a week off to prepare. If you ask (Hitmen Head Coach) Mike (Williamson) about his practices, the longer they got into the week the kids started getting developing a couple bad habits -- but they're teenagers, they're excited to play and our guys are in the same boat.

"It's an exciting time for the kids that were here last year. For everyone else, it's a new experience and that's worth getting excited for, too."

While the Oil Kings were the class of the Eastern Conference this season, earning a franchise record 51 wins and 108 points, the Hitmen weren't too far behind. Calgary, which has proven to be a perennial post-season contender, posted a 46-21-1-4 record for 97 points. The club is making its fifth appearance in the Eastern Conference Final in the past seven seasons.

These two teams haven't met since Dec. 18, 2012, when Edmonton emerged with a 4-1 win on Teddy Bear Toss Night at Rexall Place. While that resulted in the Oil Kings' second straight win over the Hitmen, Calgary won the regular season series four games to two.

"It's hard to use those games as a measuring stick because it's been so long and our teams look a lot different," said Oilers prospect Mitch Moroz, adding that the mid-season acquisitions of Trevor Cheek and David Musil have made the Oil Kings that much more dangerous in all areas. "I think we've gone separate ways since we last played them, too. We had a great second half and they slowed up a little bit.

"It should be a great battle."

One of Calgary's wins came on Oct. 12 at Rexall Place when Greg Chase scored the shootout winner and infamously blew kisses at the Oil Kings' bench in celebration.

That didn't go over well with the home team.

"We try not to put any emphasis on it," said Henrik Samuelsson. "He's not the guy we're worrying about too much. They've got a lot of high-end guys on their team, so we need to focus on systems we've put in place to beat them on the scoreboard."

"We're going to go out and play our game and if they want to try and rattle us, it's not a big deal," added Moroz, who dropped the mitts with Hitmen defenceman Kenton Helgesen that night -- one of eight bouts on the year for the 6-foot-2, 210-pound winger. "They've got guys that think they can get under our skin, but aren't really good at it. It's kind of funny when you think about it."

Moroz's composure in situations like that has made him a valued commodity in the coach's eyes. The third line composed of Moroz, Edgars Kulda and fellow Oilers prospect Travis Ewanyk, has factored into six of the Oil Kings' 44 goals so far have combined to record 18 points overall in the 2013 playoffs.

"Last year we had guys like Jordan Peddle and Rhett Rachinski emerge as those go-to guys and this year and it's Eddie Kulda, Luke Bertolucci, Mitch Moroz and others who have stepped up," said Laxdal.

"It's really showcasing the depth of our hockey club. We have depth and balance on all four lines."

"We take a lot of pride in our defensive role," added Moroz, who was instrumental in neutralizing Hunter Shinkaruk and Curtis Valk of the Medicine Hat Tigers in the previous round. We're going to try and shut down their top guys again. It's an important role on this team and to provide that depth, to hold them back would be big."

There's no question the Hitmen have plenty to offer when it comes to scoring. Regular season leading scorers Brooks Macek, Cody Sylvester and Brady Brassart have continued to produce at or near a point-per-game pace. Meanwhile, late-season (re)addition Victor Rask has been engineering all kinds of success. The overage pivot has collected four goals and 13 points in 10 playoff games to this point.

"The competition gets harder, the competition gets deeper as you get deeper into the playoffs," said Laxdal. "Calgary has a very deep hockey club and that should make for a great series. Both teams have a lot of strengths and it's going to be a good battle, probably a bit of a chess match. I know our group is really looking forward to it."

The League's top goaltender, Laurent Brossoit, will get the start for the Oil Kings. The 20-year-old has posted eight wins, three shutouts, a 0.97 goals-against average and .963 save percentage to this point in the post-season.

At the other end, Chris Driedger will get the nod for the Hitmen. In nine starts so far in the playoffs, Winnipeg, Man. product has eight wins, along with a 1.73 goals-against average and .946 save percentage.

Puck drop is set for 7:00 p.m. MT.

-- Ryan Dittrick, | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
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