Johnson: Crazy counter-punching series now sees Hitmen on the mat
Incredible breakdowns and swings in play defining WHL Eastern Conference final
Disjointed, this series. Unpredictable. Back, forth. Back, forth. More sharp twists and turns than a drive down the Amalfi Coast.
“From within,” replied Dylan Wruck, when asked how the Edmonton Oil Kings had managed to execute another abrupt about-face within a 24-hour span. “We knew we needed to be better. We forgot about (Tuesday) night pretty quick. A lot of energy tonight. A lot of guys setting up. We got the early lead and kept pushing, I thought, the whole game.
“We kind of give one up, get one back. Hopefully we can string a couple together here. It’ll be big to get the win at home. Best two-out-of-three now and we’ve got home ice.
“I think tonight we made a statement. We showed what we’re capable of.”
In this counterpunching, impossible-to-get-a-handle-on WHL Eastern Conference final, the Oil Kings once more seized the advantage, one night after a dispiriting loss at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
Tuesday, Calgary chased Edmonton ace Laurent Brossoit from the net.
Wednesday, his stellar rival Chris Driedger made an early exit (two, in fact).
They take turns, these teams, soiling the sheets: Game 2: Brutal third period, Hitmen. Game 3: Abysmal second period, Oil Kings. Game 4: Reprehensible first period, Hitmen.
Mike Williamson and Co. can only hope the form(less) chart of utter unpredictability holds true for Game 5 at Rexall Place on Friday night.
“I thought our guys really responded well,” said Oil Kings’ coach Derek Laxdal of the 7-3 paddling they administered Wednesday. “We challenged them today and you’ve got to give them credit, they really came out with a lot of spark, got the early lead and it’s tough to hold that lead for the whole game.
“Both teams have split in the other team’s barn. Calgary’s going to re-set, refocus. All we did tonight was tie it up 2-2 and get a chance to take it back to Edmonton, regain some home-ice.”
For the Hitmen, though, this represented a wonderful opportunity squandered, to put a stranglehold on the series. One they may very well regret when it’s done and dusted.
Didn’t take long for the warning lights to begin flashing, the alarm bells to commence jangling, either. Just 75 seconds in, Edmonton’s T.J. Foster to Michael St. Croix and back again, Foster finishing with a sublime deke on Driedger.
The bit firmly between their teeth after that startling strike, the conference’s regular-season champs relaxed and began to warm to the occasion. Another Foster contribution, a one-timer, at 2:10, defenceman Martin Gernat taking advantage of a Curtis Lazar screen at 5:10 and an Ashton Sautner poison blow-dart had visitors the purring, in control and on cruise.
Someone might as well have turned out the lights and sent everyone home shortly thereafter when, after ‘cutting’ the margin to 4-1, the Hitmen were presented with a chance to wriggle back into contention, Keegan Lowe for cross-checking and Henrik Samuelsson for roughing both banished to the bin at the same time.
So a full two-minute 5-on-3 and the locals, and the chance to whittle the deficit down to a goal.
Tellingly, Calgary could only muster two shots and only one of any real venom — Brossoit thwarting Zane Jones on a bang-bang cross-crease pass.
After that, it seemed to be only a question of killing the minutes.
“There’s two great teams going at it here,” said St. Croix, who finished with four points. “Our coaches demanded us to be better at our morning skate. They brought in some of the older guys and just said we needed to step up. Lots of us wanted to do just that. And I think we played pretty well as a team.
“At the end of last night, it was a tough loss. In the dressing room we kept on saying we want to play for each other. You look at the guy beside you. We did, and tonight we played for each other.”
In the aftermath of the 5-2 Game 3 deflation, a clearly-miffed Laxdal had challenged his players to “sacrifice” more. A perfect example of the upgrade in that department Wednesday was Saunter, who bravely threw himself in front of two shots, painfully, during a late-game Hitmen 5-on-3. The outcome was already decided, but the four-goal advantage wasn’t on his mind when he dropped down to take a couple pellets for the team.
“That’s what we’re looking for,” agreed Laxdal. “Sacrifice for your teammates. Sacrifice for the logo on the front. You’re this far in the playoffs, you’ve got to do a little extra to keep things going.”
So the Oil Kings now hold the upper hand. Not that it’s counted for much more than diddly so far.
“They’re a great hockey team over there, coached very well and play a structured game,” cautioned St. Croix. “They showed us in Game 3 that they come out hard after a loss. And we’re going to expect nothing less in Game 5.”
Over to you, Hitmen.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
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