It was a match-up that seemed almost inevitable. Before the season even began I would have picked this season’s WHL Final to be a rematch of last season’s, with Portland and Edmonton battling for a berth in the Memorial Cup. And after the two teams finished atop their respective conferences during the regular season it was hard to not look past the next three rounds in anticipation of the final. The seven games these teams played last season were so good that you almost couldn’t wait for them to go head-to-head one more time.
Of course, if I’d known then what I know now -- that rematches almost never happen, the last was in 1976 when the New Westminster Bruins and Saskatoon Blades battled for the second time in consecutive years -- I probably would have thought differently about the inevitability of this rematch. In fact I probably should have.
With teams like the Hitmen, Blades, and Rebels in the top half of the Eastern Conference the road to the Final was not going to be easy. Thanks to an upset of the Blades in the first round, Edmonton had to beat just one of top four, the Calgary Hitmen. But the Hitmen pushed them to the brink forcing a win on home ice in Game 7 which setting the stage for what should be an amazing conclusion to the WHL season.
By the Numbers: With the Winterhawks playing in the US Division these teams have met just one time this season so the sample size for head-to-head data is, to say the least, limited. That game was played in March and despite trailing going into the third period, the Oil Kings were able to score two goals in the final 20 minutes, the last coming on the power play with 1:03 remaining, to secure the win. The game included a number of penalties too: ten to each side for a total of 65 minutes. It will be interesting to see if that was a one game anomaly or something we can expect to see throughout the series.
A summary of these team’s numbers and rankings is presented below. Looking at the numbers and the ranks it is very clear that these are two of the very best, if not the best, teams in the WHL this season. Seems appropriate that they meet in the final.
|Record||51-15-2-4 (2nd)||57-12-1-2 (1st)|
|Goals For||278 (4th)||334 (1st)|
|Goals Against||155 (1st)||169 (2nd)|
|Power Play||28.6% (1st)||23.4% (2nd)|
|Penalty Kill||87.5% (2nd)||87.9% (1st)|
How Edmonton Got Here: As mentioned previously the Oil Kings just finished a seven game series with the Hitmen, winning the last game 2-0 in front of their home town fans. The series was a strange one with Edmonton winning three games by four goals or more; the Hitmen had a laugher of their own, a 5-2 victory in which they score all five of their goals during the second period. The series may not have been a classic but it was certainly fun to watch. And it was a lot better than the lopsided five game and four game victories over the Ice and Tigers that came before.
How Portland Got Here: Strangely the Winterhawks longest series came in the opening round when it took them six games to dispatch the eighth seeded Everett Silvertips. Portland finished the regular season with more than double Everett’s total of 57. Edmonton’s first round match-up with Kootenay was lopsided, this one, thanks to a terrible Western Conference, was worse. After that series the Winterhawks have been dominant winning four straight against the Spokane Chiefs and knocking off the Kamloops Blazers in five, and allowing only ten goals -- five of which came in the lone loss -- along the way.
Who to Watch On Edmonton: The Oil Kings have a of weapons on the front end but it might be Rangers draft pick Michael St. Croix who most dictates the teams success. During the series against Calgary St. Croix was everywhere scoring 4 goals and 4 assists and scoring both of the Oil Kings goals in the deciding game. Laurent Brossoit was his usual stellar self posting two shutouts but there was no doubt that it would be St. Croix who would be named the series MVP. He won’t be back next season so enjoy him while you can.
Who to Watch On Portland: How about the likely first overall pick, Seth Jones. Unfortunately that pick doesn’t belong to the Oilers like it has in seasons past but Jones will nonetheless be the guy that a lot of Edmonton fans, and hockey fans in general, will be focused on. Jones is the consensus number one because he is the total package: he can score, he can skate, and he’s big. I expect that throughout this series he will show why so many expect it to be his name that the Avalanche call when they step up to the podium at the Entry Draft in a few weeks time.
Key Match-up: From top to bottom these are two very skilled rosters. But with the loss of team captain, Griffin Reinhart (out for the season with a tendon injury), the Oil Kings find themselves a little thinner on the backend than they would like to be. In Reinhart’s absence it was Oilers prospect Martin Gernat who was asked to shoulder more of the load. The WHL doesn’t track ice time but it appeared to me that Gernat was playing significantly more minutes and getting tougher assignments after the Reinhart injury than he had before. Against Calgary he did very well in that role, how he matches up in that role against a deeper Portland team could be a major factor in the outcome of this series.
Schedule: As was the case with the Eastern Conference Final, all of the games in this series will be available in high-definition on Shaw, Channel 304, or you can tune into the broadcasts on the Team 1260.
|Friday, May 3||@ Portland||7:00 PM|
|Saturday, May 4||@ Portland||7:00 PM|
|Tuesday, May 7||@ Edmonton||7:00 PM|
|Wednesday, May 8||@ Edmonton||7:00 PM|
|Friday, May 10||@ Portland||7:00 PM|
|Sunday, May 12||@ Edmonton||4:00 PM|
|Monday, May 13||@ Portland||7:00 PM|
Prediction: These teams are both immensely talented and match-up quite well making a prediction much tougher than it had been in previous rounds. I am confident that this series goes a long way, I’ll say seven games. Picking a winner though is almost a toss up, and in cases like that I tend to go with my heart: Oil Kings in seven.