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Moroz Returns to Portland as Veteran Presence

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
PORTLAND, OR- Mitch Moroz has been here before.

Portland has become familiar territory to the Edmonton Oilers prospect as he’s faced the Winterhawks in the WHL Finals each of the last three seasons.

Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oil Kings

“Definitely a big rivalry,” Moroz said. “You get a hate on for certain guys throughout the series and just going through those playoff runs, there’s a unique rivalry that’s built up. It’s definitely one of a kind.”

The Edmonton Oil Kings will try to ‘take it back’ as per the team’s motto. The Oil Kings beat Portland in 2011-12 in a seven-game series but fell in six games last year. Moroz, 20, was just another young guy when Edmonton won two years ago and he had to look up to some of the older players on the roster for guidance on what it takes to win in the playoffs.

“I look back to guys, over the years, when we went through the first time and won. Those guys were awesome like Mark Pysyk and (Rhett) Richinski and last year with Keegan Lowe and guys who were leaders. You want to pass that message on as well to the other guys on our team and definitely take it upon yourself to do the same and pass down that winning tradition.”

Now facing the Winterhawks for the third time in three years, the series isn’t intimidating. There is a comfort level there.

“I think for the older guys that have been through it, there’s a level of comfort coming into this building and knowing what it’s going to bring and knowing what the crowd is going to be like and knowing how these guys play in front of them. Being able to weather the storm and stay composed under that is huge and passing that message along, the biggest thing is not forgetting to breathe and being able to respond.”

Moroz has his work cut out for him as more of a veteran leader this time around. There are ten new players on the Oil Kings roster this season and many young faces. They’ll be trying to beat Portland knowing they’ll have to face one of the more electric crowds in the WHL as well.

Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oil Kings

“Intimidation is a good word, from their point of view,” Edmonton Head Coach Derek Laxdal said. “But from our point of view, we want the energy, we want to be excited coming into this building and for some of our kids that have never played here, I think it’s going to be quite a treat for them tonight and probably to get by the first couple of shifts will be really tough for our group. There will be some butterflies but if you can’t get up for a game one in a league final in a building like this, then you have to ask the question. But I’m pretty confident our guys are ready to play tonight because our leadership group has done a really good job of just kind of talking with the young kids and letting them know what to expect.”

Moroz is ready to feed off that energy that he knows all too well and it starts with game one in Portland on Saturday night.

“It’s been said that any noise is good noise,” Moroz said. “We’ll try to thrive off it as best we can… It’s a fun building to play in, you’ve got to have fun with it when it’s that crazy, especially in junior hockey. It is a rink and atmosphere that is hard to match and you’ve just got to enjoy it.”

Laxdal said this season that Moroz really developed into a leadership role and many of the ‘kids really look up to him because of who he is and what he does and his toughness’. Where else is there a better opportunity to lead by example than in the playoffs? It is a time of the year where toughness, grit and perseverance are often rewarded and it’s a style and pace of game that seems to fit Moroz’s strengths.

“I’ve always thought this is the best time of the year to play. You can get away with a little bit more, it gets a little more chippy and the game definitely picks up and I’m usually able to raise my game as well and try to perform my best for the guys. I always just really enjoy playing during the playoffs.”

Moroz has taken on a different role than in his past playoff experiences. In 20 post-season games in 2011-12, Moroz scored eight points (4-4-8) and he recorded just seven (2-5-7) in 22 games last year. In those playoff runs, Moroz was asked to take more of a ‘shutdown’ role and focus more on being responsible for stifling the opponents rather than scoring goals and putting up numbers. Now in his third playoffs as a member of the Oil Kings, Moroz has had the opportunity to put up more points and be more offensive. He has 13 points (4-9-13) in 14 games in these playoffs.

Those improved numbers fit right in with Moroz’s season trends. He posted career highs in goals, assists and points this year with 35-28-63 in 70 regular season games. All of this while recording a career-high 156 penalty minutes as well.

It’s all a part of the winger’s attempt to finish out his WHL career strong. That continues with this series against Portland, as he looks to head into the professional ranks riding the high of winning a WHL Championship again.

“It’s really important,” he said. “I’m taking a lot of pride in it and really soaking it all up and trying to be a sponge. I’m just having a lot of fun with the guys and being around them. I definitely want to go out on a good note and I’ll do everything I can to make sure that happens.”

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