Johnson: Bring on an intriguing Battle of Alberta, junior style
Calgary Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings haven’t met since Dec. 18, but they’ll renew hostilities in WHL Eastern Conference final
They’ve been out of sight for a while now.
But not out of mind.
“We knew heading into playoffs they were the team we’d most likely have to go through,” reasoned Calgary Hitmen defencemen Jaynen Rissling from down the victorious side of the hallway at the Scotiabank Saddledome. “We knew that if we played our game we’d wind up playing them in the Eastern final here.
“We had a pretty good season series against them, (winning) 4-2. But we ended losing the last two. That’s still fresh in our minds. So we want to get back and really lay a beating on them.
“We are the best two best teams in the conference. This is the way it was supposed to happen.”
They may lie only three hours apart by bus, but last time the Calgary Hitmen and Edmonton Oil Kings traded scowls was way back on Dec. 18th. A scheduling quirk, to be sure, but absence, in this case, definitely does not make the heart grow fonder.
“I don’t quite know how that worked out,” admitted goaltender Chris Driedger. “All six games against them BEFORE Christmas? But it’ll be interesting to see how we’ve developed as a team as compared to them.”
Edmonton-Calgary for the Western Hockey League Eastern Conference title. Between them they racked up 97 wins and 205 points.
Set the traps. Let Highway 2 hostilities begin.
With the Flames extinguished and the Oilers fading fast, the kids take provincial centre stage at playoff time.
“They’re our big rivals, we’re 1 and 2,” said Driedger. “Edmonton’s got a lot of scoring power so it’s going to be a real battle for our defence, who’ve been stellar so far in these first two series.
“This is going to be the toughest one yet, though, especially on our D and our big guys are going to have to outscore their big guys.”
The Hitmen set up the meeting by dispatching Brent Sutter’s Red Deer Rebels in five games courtesy a 5-1 slapdown Thursday at the ’Dome. The Rebs wilted and ultimately perished under a torrent of penalty trouble of their own doing and a stifling Hitmen defensive fortification that held them to a pauper’s two shots in the second period.
“We have to play hard shutdown hockey,” emphasized Driedger. “If Edmonton’s only getting 17 shots on net” — as Red Deer did Thursday — “they’re not scoring too many goals.
“Last year they destroyed us, basically. This year we finally got the upper edge in the season series, but playoffs is a completely different story. This is going to be a hard series. Nobody gets anything for free. Every hit, every inch of ice, is going to count.
“Does that make it fun? Oh, absolutely. That’s what we live for.”
Rissling, too, would take his side’s semifinal Game 5 performance, bottle it and gladly roll the dice in the next round, even against the 51-win Oil Kings.
“I thought we played extremely well tonight,” he judged. “Just the way that we shut them down. Especially doing it in t he second period. When we were in Red Deer for Games 3 and 4, it’s like we blew a gasket in the second period. We didn’t know what we were doing out there, we were running around and we let them back into the game.
“Tonight, we just did a really good of shutting them down and making our plays count.”
Against Edmonton, given the stakes and historical hockey perspective, everything will be magnified, starting with Game 1 at Rexall Place next Thursday.
“I’m excited that our fans and the people have an opportunity to watch,” said Hitmen boss Mike Williamson. “It’s going to be great hockey. They’re going to see two top teams go at it. It’s great in the sense that it’s another close rival. Red Deer was one and now the traditional Battle of Alberta is on the table for us.
“That’s exciting for us and everyone watching.
“It didn’t take any time at the start of the season for the rivalry to heat up. They knew going in we should be a pretty good hockey team. We, obviously, knew they were going to be a very good hockey team.
“The series was all before Christmas; three quick games against them and another three later in a short span. It was a pretty heated rivalry but I think both teams have respect for each other. A little bit of hatred, if you want, there. It should be a great series.”
For Rissling, a fine upstanding Edmonton lad, this one, naturally, is personal. A trip to the WHL final is enough incentive, of course. Add bragging summer rights into the package and there’s an awful lot on the line.
“Going back to my hometown, it’s going to be hit and miss,” he mused. “Fun playing in front of a lot of family and friends. That’s the hit part. But the miss part would be my dad’s gonna be there and he’s gonna have a lot of criticisms for me if I ever mess up. That just adds a little fire under me to play my best.
“I think we’ve got a pretty special team here. Edmonton’s obviously very skilled, the top team in the league.
“Is this what I wanted?
“Yeah. Of course.”
“But I think it’s what everybody wanted.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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