Oil Kings get ready for a sprint to the finish
Canadian major junior championship a different animal than best-of-seven series
London, Ont. — Adapt or die is too harsh a saying for major junior hockey, even for the MasterCard Memorial Cup, but adapt or lose certainly works.
For the best of the best in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), and that includes the Edmonton Oil Kings, a successful season is an extraordinary, multistage test.
Teams in the three junior leagues pound through 72-game regular seasons, then go four rounds of best-of-seven series in the playoffs with its back-and-forth, lengthy travel, overtime and, for the Oil Kings, a thrilling Game 7 victory over the Portland Winterhawks to win the Western Hockey League title.
For the second time in three seasons, the Oil Kings’ reward is a berth in this short, unforgiving, four-team tournament, a different animal altogether from what has preceded it. This is not an all-star week in May, as some ingenues might be tempted to believe.
The Oil Kings’ first game is 2 p.m. MDT Saturday against the Ontario Hockey League champion Guelph Storm, a high-octane club (a CHL-leading 340 regular-season goals) not unlike the Winterhawks.
“Adaptability is probably paramount in an experience like this,” said Oil Kings associate coach Steve Hamilton. “You grind and you climb slowly and now you sprint. That’s exactly what we’ve come down to: It’s a sprint for the Memorial Cup.
“You’ve already reached what you thought was the summit and it was a false summit. Now you’ve got to up another (climb). I think our guys two years ago probably weren’t ready for that.
“I feel differently about this year’s team. I feel differently about the composition of our team and the group of guys that we have. I think they’re ready to ask more of themselves for another week here.”
The players certainly say they are, particularly the eight returnees from the 2012 Memorial Cup in Shawinigan, Que., where the Oil Kings won their opening match against the host Cataractes, then didn’t win another game.
On Wednesday night, the Oil Kings held a team meeting to discuss how this tournament is different, how best to approach it, what the first-timers can expect, and so forth. The idea was to paint a portrait of the event, which opened Friday night with the host London Knights playing the Val d’Or Foreurs, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champions.
“It was a bit of everything,” centre Curtis Lazar said. “I know from my standpoint the games are on Sportsnet, so you’re going to three or four TV timeouts a period compared to the one. It can really mess with your momentum.
“You will be a little more rested, but that stop-and-go isn’t always the best thing for you. We talked about the ice conditions, looking back on Shawinigan. It was really hot there and the ice was sub-par, I guess you could say.
“I guess the big thing for us is to seize this opportunity, play with no regrets, because we don’t want to repeat what happened in Shawinigan.”
In a seven-game series, a team can drop a game or two, as the Oil Kings did against Portland, and still recover. Not here.
So the coaches have talked to the players about “performance on demand,” a concept routinely associated with Olympic athletes, whose entire life is about summoning their best effort “on the day,” as they say.
In hockey parlance, the players are aware they have to tap into the energy, urgency and detailed execution of a Game 7. And they will have to do that four, five or even six times, if the dreaded tiebreaker comes into play, in the next week.
“That’s where our leadership will be really tested,” Lazar said. “We’re growing up and becoming pros.
“This is probably the closest you can get to playing at the pro level from a junior standpoint. You really want to rally your guys and be that go-to figure.
“Griffin (Reinhart, Edmonton’s top defenceman) is the best at it. Just poise. You watch him, his play; he slows the game down. Tristan (Jarry, the goaltender), he always wants to make that big save.
“For myself, (it’s about) just trying to get the energy up. Just those little things go a long way in the dressing room.”
The players — and certainly the coaches — know more about their opponents than they are prepared to let on, but Lazar said the emphasis is on being ready to play your own game at a high level. As opposed to fussing too obsessively about the details of the opponents’ game plan.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Lazar said. “People are asking, ‘What do you expect from Guelph?’ I don’t know. I don’t see them play at all during the season.
“That’s what makes this special. It makes it special, but also tough to win.”
Cole Benson, who was with the Oil Kings in 2012 but rarely played, said this Oil Kings team is not a candidate to get ahead of itself, to take anything for granted.
“Compared to two years ago, I get the sense that our team is really humble and that has brought us a long way this year,” Benson said. “There’s not a lot of cockiness on our team, we’re all together as a group.
“If we stay that course, we’re really going to do well in this tournament. Stay the course with how we’ve played the rest of the year, that’s the biggest thing.”
Sure. Stay the course, while sprinting to Canadian major junior hockey’s ultimate finish line in a four-team pressure cooker on national TV.
Nothing to it.
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