|Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club
- For the second straight year, the Edmonton Oil Kings will pack their bags for the Rose City and go toe-to-toe with the Portland Winterhawks for the Western Hockey League title.
Michael St. Croix scored twice and Laurent Brossoit stopped all 26 shots he faced as the Oil Kings defended their Eastern Conference Championship with a 2-0 win over the Calgary Hitmen in Game 7.
Brossoit is now one off the record for the most shutouts in a single post-season. Dustin Slade of the 2006 Vancouver Giants currently holds the record with six.
Games 1 and 2 of the WHL Final will be played on Friday and Saturday at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon, before the Championship Series shifts back to Oil Country for Games 3 and 4 next Tuesday and Wednesday at Rexall Place.
"It was an outstanding performance," said Head Coach Derek Laxdal. "Calgary is a great hockey club and it's sad to see one of these teams lose, but I'm happy we're moving on.
"Our kids really deserved it."
In need of a quick start, the Oil Kings got it after ‘surviving' an early pace dominated by whistles.
As part of a 15-0 run in shots, St. Croix opened the scoring at 14:05. On a 2-on-1 with Stephane Legault, engineered by Cody Corbett, No. 18 easily deposited Legault's cross-ice feed into the empty cage behind Chris Driedger.
"Just a great play by Stephane Legault," said St. Croix. "I was fortunate enough to get that pass. Once we got that goal, we started rolling into form and started to show them what we had.
"Anytime the coach challenges the team, you want to step up and be that guy. That being said, I think we had a lot of guys that stepped up tonight."
St. Croix has now posted 10 goals and 22 points in the playoffs, which is a new Oil Kings record for points in a single post-season. The old record was 19, coincidentally enough, set by St. Croix last year during the club's run to the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
"(St. Croix) really stepped up," said Laxdal. "The goals he scored were huge goals. He was dominant down low and really strong on the puck and had some great cutbacks. He fed off Eddie Kulda and TJ Foster. That whole line was great tonight."
With David Musil up on the rush and Dylan Wruck sloppily covering the open point, the Hitmen broke back on a 2-on-1. Keegan Lowe, the lone defenceman back, came up with an exceptional play to block the attempted cross-ice by Cody Sylvester, swatting the puck to safety and keeping the game knotted in a scoreless tie.
Each team went 0-for-1 with the power-play after one period of play, although the Oil Kings came as close as they possibly could without adding to their goal total. Alone in the crease, Legault redirected a cross-ice pass off the base of Driedger's far post.
Capitalizing on a bit of a broken play in the slot, St. Croix cashed his second of the night 4:33 in the second, making it a 2-0 game as he swooped into the middle and launched a shot over Driedger's left shoulder, bringing the impressive Tuesday night crowd of 10,738 at Rexall Place out of their seats and into a frenzy.
"The kids looked a little nervous early on," said Laxdal. "It's a lot of pressure on them. But that was an outstanding crowd that came out to support these guys. Once we got those goals, we found our game a little bit. It was one heck of a seventh game. Give Calgary credit, they came out and pushed us hard in the third period and LB was outstanding.
"Good win. Solid win. Gusty win."
As the 10-minute mark of the second period passed, the Hitmen had registered only two shots on goal since their 7-2 edge evaporated 20 minutes earlier.
Second-period penalties to Jake Virtanen (roughing) and Spencer Humphries (hooking) gave the home side an additional pair of power-plays but, once again, the club couldn't cash.
Including tonight, the Oil Kings have now failed to score on 20 straight opportunities.
Fortunately for Edmonton, Calgary couldn't generate much either, squandering several chances late in the second period and going 0-for-4 on the night overall.
Late in the game, Hitmen defenceman Peter Kosterman was assessed a highly questionable delay of game minor for closing his hand on the puck in the defensive zone (in reality, he simply swept the puck to safety with the side of his left hand as he battled with TJ Foster). On the ensuing Oil Kings power-play, it was the visitors who got the better of the scoring chances.
Burning Corbett on the back end, Jake Virtanen burst down the wing, cut to the net and challenged Brossoit with a slippery shot along the ice, but the goaltender smothered it and the rebound by lunging out of his crease to stop play.
With Henrik Samuelsson in the box late, Calgary pressed to get on the board. Key blocks by Musil, Travis Ewanyk and Curtis Lazar kept the Hitmen at bay, while Brossoit cleaned up the rest.
"I felt really strong in Game 6 in Calgary, but it was tough not to get the result I wanted, so I really pushed myself to contribute to the team anyway I could," said Lazar, who had some dental work done Tuesday after getting hit in the face with an errant puck a the morning skate ("I went in and dentists made it look as good as new").
"It's Game 7. It doesn't take much to get up for this, so I went out there and played my game."
"Curtis has played a lot of great games, but he was outstanding tonight," added Laxdal. "His drive and his will on pucks and to get places was outstanding. We had a feeling that Curtis would be a big-game guy tonight. He's a big-game player and he really showed that tonight.
"Everybody. Everybody stepped up and played had. Look at our back end. David Musil, Marty Gernat, Keegan Lowe. They all stepped up."
The Oil Kings will charter to Portland on Wednesday. OilersTV and edmontonoilers.com will have full coverage of the entire WHL Final.
"They're an explosive team," Laxdal said of the Winterhawks. "We've got our work cut out for us. They're a 117-point team in the regular season, so we're the underdogs."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick