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Oil Kings, Winterhawks square off in Game 1

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers

- ‘Let's move on tonight and take the throne.

'Out go the lights.

'It begins tonight.'

You said it, Tom Morello.

Tonight at the Rose Garden, almost a year to the day since the clubs squared off in Game 3 of the 2012 WHL Final, the Edmonton Oil Kings face off against the Portland Winterhawks in Game 1 of the Western Hockey League Championship Series.

"It's good to be here," said Head Coach Derek Laxdal, glancing at his surroundings in the basement of the rink where memories were made last spring. "The kids have worked so hard to get here and that's going to make for a great series.

"Our kids have had a lot of pressure on them right from the get-go with all the talk about this being ‘our year.' There's been a lot of pressure on them all season and I think once we beat Calgary in that Conference Final, we let out a sigh of relief.

"All that pressure's off now. Just go play hockey."

The Oil Kings and Winterhawks met only once in the regular season. Back on Feb. 27 at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Oil Kings escaped a 4-3 victory on the back of goals by Travis Ewanyk, Dylan Wruck, Trevor Cheek and Michael St. Croix.

Nicolas Petan, Troy Rutkowski and Taylor Leier scored for the Winterhawks.

Other than that game, expectations and scouting reports coming in have been derived off video and the experience of last year's series.

"We look at a lot of video and do what we call a ‘series breakdown' before every series. That's what we did (Thursday) night to get prepared for this one because we haven't seen them in so long," said Oilers prospect and birthday boy Mitch Moroz. "We're looking at some tendencies in their system and with their key players. Based on that, we develop our game plan. That's all you can really do when you don't see a team too often.

"What we know for sure is that they're a great team. But so are we and we both deserve to be here. I think it's going to be a great series."

The Winterhawks are, indeed, a great team -- and it's their third straight trip to the WHL Final, so you can bet they're hungrier than ever.

Led by No. 1 ranked draft-eligible prospect Seth Jones, St. Louis Blues prospect Ty Rattie and a bevvy of others, the Winterhawks ended the regular season with a 57-12-3 record for 117 points. As a result, Portland will have home ice advantage.

Rattie, a second-round pick of the Blues in 2011, leads the WHL in post-season scoring with an incredible 15 goals and 31 points.

Gone are Sven Baertschi and Marcel Noebels, but the Winterhawks are still an explosive bunch. In fact, they might even be better than last year.

"You've got to respect them," said defenceman Keegan Lowe. "We know what Rattie, (Brendan) Leipsic and Petan can do. You have to give them respect and give them some room, but you can't give them too much so they're unable to pick up any speed in the neutral zone. When you do that, with the speed and ability they have, they're going to expose you."

Alongside Oilers prospect David Musil, Lowe will be counted upon to play big minutes in a shutdown role.

"For my whole career I've wanted to be that guy that's going to shut down other teams' top lines," said Lowe. "I'm looking forward to seeing what David and I can do against them."

The Oil Kings come into tonight's game riding the momentum of Tuesday's big Game 7 win over the Calgary Hitmen. On the other side, the Winterhawks haven't played since last Friday after easily deposing the Kamloops Blazers 4-1.

"You can say (the quick turnaround) has hurt us and you could say it's helped us too," said Lowe. "We're looking at it in the positive way. We can ride the momentum and energy we built up in Game 7 right up to the here and now. It's only a couple days later, so we didn't have a long layoff where we'd be concerning ourselves with the anticipation and practice time every day. If that were the case, by the time we got here, we would probably be a little bit nervous.

"We're going to ride the wave here."

"They might be a little more rested, but we're probably in better game shape right now," added Michael St. Croix, who recorded 10 points in the Eastern Conference Final vs. Calgary. "It's a little bit tough but our routine hasn't changed one bit. We watched some video last night to sharpen up. We know a lot of their players from last year and having the chance to play against them at some point in our careers. There's probably going to be a bit of a feeling-out process early on."

"We know what we can do and we have the experience that tells us we can win."

As far as lineups are concerned, Oil Kings forward and Vancouver, WA (a short 20-minute drive from the Rose Garden) product Trevor Cheek is still day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

Laurent Brossoit will get the start in goal for Edmonton. The 19-year-old has posted a 12-1-3 record, 1.58 goals-against average and .941 save percentage so far in the post-season.

He's a quick starter, too. Combined in Game 1's against the Kootenay Ice, Medicine Hat Tigers and Calgary Hitmen, Brossoit has allowed only four goals and 69 shots.

Mac Carruth will get the nod in goal for the Winterhawks.

"We have high expectations as an organization," said Laxdal. "These kids have been resilient. They've battled through and have done everything we've asked of them. At the end of the day right now, we're excited to be here and we're going to put our best foot forward as the underdog going in.

"We've got to make sure that we come out and represent the east well."

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