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WHL champs open season with 5-3 win

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton, AB - On a night when the Edmonton Oil Kings celebrated the 2012 WHL Championship by raising the banner at Rexall Place, they also opened up the 2012-13 season right, out-dueling the Kootenay Ice in a seesaw battle that resulted in a 5-3 home win.

The Oil Kings went up 2-0 less than three minutes into the game and didn't look back.

Veteran Keegan Lowe recorded a goal and a two assists, while the club's leading-scorer last year, Michael St. Croix, picked up a one of each in the victory.

"You've got to give our guys credit," said Head Coach Derek Laxdal post-game. "They battled back, we got the next one and they battled back again -- we hung on and we gave our guys a bit of a pep talk in the second intermission. But we got it done."

Just over a minute in, Oilers prospect Mitch Moroz helped the home side get on the board as he raced in and snapped a quick shot on Kootenay netminder Mackenzie Skapski. The initial shot was stopped, but the 18-year-old goalie kicked the puck out into the slot where St. Croix backhanded it home into the yawning cage.

St. Croix reached team- and record-high production last season, scoring 45 goals and 105 points in all 72 regular-season games. He started hot in the post-season, too, but struggled in the WHL Championship Series and Memorial Cup.

"It's funny because I'm usually a pretty slow starter," St. Croix laughed. "It's something I wanted to do this year, is get off to a good start. Personally I think I played OK tonight, but the fact that we got the win is most important."

The 19-year-old also recently signed his three-year entry-level deal with the New York Rangers. He's growing up, and so is his team that lost some veterans due to ‘old age' over the summer.

"It's a feeling out process, for sure," he said, adding that new linemates Moroz and TJ Foster developed some early chemistry. "You have to get used to everybody and we haven't been playing with each other for the past couple months, so it's going to take a while to get to 100 percent.

"That's our mentality," added Lowe, whose smile showed the wear of someone who achieved a Gordie Howe Hat Trick. "We have guys that are going to step up. It doesn't matter how it turns out, we have guys that aren't scared of anything. We're going to be a tough team to play against this year."

The Oil Kings made it a 2-0 game on their next shot 1:43 later. Rookie Brandon Baddock, a Vermillion native, walked off the sideboards and gunned a sharp-angle wrister on goal. Deep in his crease, Skapski couldn't corral the attempt, as the puck slipped between his arm and dribbled across the line.

Down 9-2 in shots, the Ice got back in it with an important tally late in the period. At 16:23, Joey Leach's lengthy point shot was redirected by Jonathon Martin past a screened Laurent Brossoit to set the score at 2-1.

Brossoit made 25 saves on 28 shots on the night.

Late in the period, Edmonton regained its two-goal advantage. Waiting in anticipation, Lowe backed off the line and then stepped up to control a bouncing puck at the point. No. 4 set his sights and released a seeing-eye wrister that sailed into the top corner behind Skapski with 1:01 on the clock. Oilers prospect Travis Ewanyk -- who missed the bulk of the 2011-12 season with a shoulder injury -- picked up an assist.

The Oil Kings led 10-9 in shots in goal through 20 minutes. Both teams went 0-for-1 with the man-advantage.

Once again, Kootenay stepped on the gas to get back in the game early in the second period. Newly named captain Griffin Reinhart made a soft, ill-advised play in which he launched a no-look, up-the-gut pass that was picked off in the neutral zone. Sustained Ice pressure ensued, and it soon resulted in a goal.

From the point and with a heavy screen blocking Brossoit's view, Tanner Muth delivered a shot similar to Lowe's that beat the Oil Kings' MVP clean.

That's when Lowe took matters into his own hands, dropping the mitts with Kootenay's Jeff Hubic in a highly spirited bout to settle an earlier score. The 10,976 in attendance at Rexall Place roared in appreciation, setting the stage for another Edmonton goal.

With Kootenay's Jagger Dirk in the box serving a holding minor, Henrik Samuelsson scooped up a St. Croix rebound at the crease's lip and hammered the puck home to, once again, restore Edmonton's two-goal lead.

"We were having a rough period and he challenged me," Lowe said of his momentum-changing tilt. "When something like that happens, I don't really want to shy away. It might not have been the right time, but it ended up working out.

"I wanted to play my game. You have to forget about that whole ceremony at the start. We did well -- our second period wasn't ideal, but it's going to happen. We've got a long way to go but we can only go up from here."

"You've got to love Keegan's game, he stepped up there," added Laxdal. "I thought he was outstanding. He really showed a lot of leadership on the backend. He had a great training camp for us and obviously we're looking for more of that leadership from him throughout the year."

The Ice's never-quit attitude persisted as the middle period wound down. A late power-play marker by Brock Montgomery made it a 4-3 game heading into the third.

The Oil Kings salted the outcome with a Cole Benson goal midway through the third. The 5'8", 150-pound pivot quickly spun and put a shot that landed in the crease. Skapski, clueless to its whereabouts, accidentally punched it across the line following a desperate save attempt.

Benson played in 46 regular-season games last year but only appeared in one in the post-season.

Not only did the Oil Kings begin the 2012-13 campaign with an important win, they did so while celebrating past success. Still, as Laxdal points out, the opening ceremony, banner raising and 5-3 win all allow the team to move and focus on doing it again.

"It puts closure to our season last year," he said. "For our team, it's honour to play in front of our fans and to see that banner go up in a place where they can see it each and every day while they're playing here is pretty special."

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