|Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club
- Upon their arrival in the Rose City, the Edmonton Oil Kings couldn't help but get a little sentimental.
Just last spring, the Oil Kings and Portland Winterhawks battled to the death in one of the best and most highly competitive series' in Western Hockey League history.
Unlikely as it seemed, a rematch was meant to be.
"The guys that were here last year have some pretty fond memories of it this city, the series and obviously winning it all," said Oilers prospect Travis Ewanyk. "Throughout the whole post-season, we were looking forward to this opportunity. This was our goal. We never looked too far ahead or lost focus on the task at hand, but this is where we wanted to be. Now we're here, it feels right and it's an incredible opportunity for us."
Ewanyk and the Oil Kings faced a fair bit of adversity in their Eastern Conference Championship series with the Calgary Hitmen, but ultimately came out victorious on the back of a 2-0 Game 7 win this past Tuesday at Rexall Place.
Since then, it's been a bit of a whirlwind. Sixteen hours after successfully defending their Eastern Conference title, the club was whisked away on an Air North charter, landing Wednesday evening and skating this afternoon at the Winterhawks' practice facility in Beaverton, Oregon.
Buckle up. Game 1 is right around the corner (8:00p.m. MT on Friday night at the Rose Garden). While the Oil Kings are still running on the momentum of Tuesday's win, the Winterhawks haven't played since last Friday when they wrapped up their series with the Kamloops Blazers in Game 5.
"Last year as the series went on, the rivalry got more and more intense," said Head Coach Derek Laxdal. "You can feel it now. There's a real Edmonton-Portland rivalry. Portland would win, we would win, Portland would win, we would win and it was like a heavyweight match going back and forth before the knockout punch was thrown.
"I think it's great. The right two teams are in it again this year."
Coming off a series in which goaltending was the deciding factor, expect to see more of the same over the next couple weeks.
Laurent Brossoit has been exceptional to this point in the post-season. Just as he was last year, posting a 2.82 goals-against average and .910 save percentage against the Winterhawks, the 19-year-old draft pick of the Calgary Flames has been the crutch to the Oil Kings' success.
Brossoit posted his fifth shutout of the playoffs in Game 7 vs. Calgary and is now only one off the WHL record for shutouts in a single post-season. Dustin Slade of the 2006 Vancouver Giants currently holds the record with six.
"Look at Jonathan Quick last year with Los Angeles," said Laxdal. "Goaltending is huge in the playoffs and it doesn't matter what league you play in, you need it to win."
Both teams do.
While Brossoit was leading the Oil Kings to a record-breaking 51-win, 108-pound regular season, Winterhawks netminder Mac Carruth was having similar success in Portland.
Carruth, a Chicago Blackhawks draft pick, led the Winterhawks to a league-leading 117 points in the regular season. In the playoffs, he's put up a 12-3-0 record, 1.62 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.
Brossoit's boxcars are better (albeit marginally) and he's lost only once in regulation time. But with the veterans gearing up for their last kick at the can before they turn pro, expect nothing short of their best in what should be a fierce battle between the pipes.
"We know his story and we know we have to get into his head a little bit," Ewanyk said of Carruth, who has a reputation based on last year's series as being a bit of a hot head. "(Losing) last year is already in the back of his head and LB and him are going head-to-head. They're both great goalies. The numbers (Carruth) put up, you can't take anything away from him because you know he'll be ready.
"We know he's going to be good, but we know we can beat him. Our main focus is getting pucks behind him and if we can get into his head a little bit, it's only going to help with that."
Led by Henrik Samuelsson, Stephane Legault, Curtis Lazar and Michael St. Croix, Carruth's nights won't be easy.
St. Croix recorded four goals and 10 points in the seven-game series against the Hitmen. In doing so, he surpassed his own Oil Kings record for points in a single post-season. The previous was record was 19, set last season when the club went all the way to the Ed Chynoweth Cup. With one series to play, St. Croix already has 22 in 16 games.
It's a similar story on the other side. St. Louis Blues draft pick Ty Rattie currently leads the Winterhawks (and the entire WHL) in post-season scoring with 15 goals and 31 points.
Along with linemates Sven Baertschi and Marcel Noebels (who have since turned pro) last spring, Rattie was brilliant and will certainly present a challenge this time around, too.
Brossoit, however, isn't concerned in the slightest.
"I try not to have any expectations," he said. "I'm not going there thinking he and (Nicolas) Petan will do something. If I'm focused on that, then I start second-guessing myself and am not doing the right thing as a goaltender. My main focus is watching the puck and not concerning myself too much with who's on the ice. There's no doubt they have talented goal-scorers, but we all have to focus on our assignments.
"I know it's a cliché, but as a goaltender I'm just focusing on each shot as it comes."
"(Rattie) is a heck of a hockey player," added Laxdal. "We need to slow him down as much as we can. That line (Rattie, Petan and Brendan Leipsic) sees a lot of ice. They're often double-shifted, they have great chemistry, they come at you hard and they have great skill, skating ability and puck sense.
"It's going to be tough to shut them down, but we've got to limit their chances. We've got to make it hard on them. They're special players. When you face special players, you've got to do your best and have a good, solid group work ethic."
Challenges in mind, the Oil Kings can't wait to get going. In one of the League's most passionate barns, Game 1 is shaping up to be a good one.
"It's as loud as it gets," said Ewanyk. "Behind our fans, they're the next best. They're loud, they're passionate and for a US market, they absolutely love their hockey down here."
"It makes for great hockey," added Laxdal. "To have a seven-game series last year and get the rematch this year, we're going right into Game 8."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick