MacKinnon: Oil Kings pass litmus test with Winterhawks
Rematch of last two WHL finals proves to be a barn-burner at Rexall Place
EDMONTON - Everything was happening at Rexall Place on Friday night.
Santa Claus dropped the ceremonial first puck, for starters, and it was the popular teddy bear toss, a fundraiser for Santas Anonymous that saw 10,128 fuzzy, little bears flung onto the ice surface when Edmonton Oil Kings defenceman
Dysin May scored his second goal of the season at 15:20 of the first period.
Oh, and it was a good, old-fashioned WHL rivalry night, too, with the Portland Winterhawks in town to play in what turned out be a barnburner the Oil Kings won 5-4 in a shootout in front of 10,058 fans.
The Oil Kings started slowly, fell behind 1-0 in the first, then took over the game, they thought. Edmonton built late third-period leads of 3-1 and 4-2, but frittered both away, as Portland scored three times in the final 4-1/2 minutes of regulation to tie the score 4-4 and send the game to overtime.
Reid Petryk roofed the shootout winner past Winterhawks goalie Brendan Burke, while Oil Kings emerging netminding star Tristan Jarry, stuffed Brendan Leipsic to preserve the victory.
The Oil Kings and Winterhawks have met in the WHL final each of the last two seasons, with Edmonton winning a seven-game thriller in 2012, the Winterhawks exacting payback last spring, closing out the Oil Kings in six games.
So this was a proverbial litmus test game for the reloading Oil Kings, who came into the Friday night contest on an 8-2 roll their last 10 games.
The Winterhawks, as they habitually do, occupy first place in the Western Conference and remain a WHL powerhouse despite the loss of stars like sniper Ty Rattie and franchise defenceman Seth Jones from last year’s Memorial Cup finalists.
The Oil Kings, sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference, saw the likes of stalwarts Keegan Lowe, Martin Gernat and David Musil, Michael St. Croix, T.J. Foster, Stephane Legault and Dylan Wruck all move on.
So, as litmus tests go, this figured to be a major one for the Oil Kings, who are having a solid season, but aren’t the talent-laden club they have been the last few years.
Not to mention, veteran centre Henrik Samuelsson, the Oil Kings’ leading scorer, was unavailable owing to an “upper-body injury.”
“We are a hard-working hockey club with some character,” said Oil Kings head coach Derek Laxdal. “Our identity is a lot different than last year.
“We are a team that has to work hard for everything we get. We just can’t rely on our skill. When we think we’re a skilled team, we get in trouble.”
The Winterhawks, deploying a plug-and-play consistency, remain the high-octane club they have been for years.
The Oil Kings’ strong suit the last couple of years was their depth up front, with four balanced lines and a back end capable of generating offence in players like the departed Gernat, Lowe and Mark Pysyk, one of the keys to their 2012 WHL championship.
This season, the Oil Kings are more of a lunch-bucket club, backstopped by Jarry, who was key when needed Friday night.
Much has been expected of veteran forwards like Curtis Lazar, an Ottawa Senators draft pick; Samuelsson, a Phoenix prospect; and Mitch Moroz, an Oilers draft pick. And they have delivered this season and certainly did on Friday night.
Lazar, who along with wheelhorse defenceman Griffin Reinhart, has been invited to the Canadian world junior team’s selection camp, extended his team lead in goals when he ripped his 18th of the season past Burke at 6:39 of the third period to give Edmonton a 3-1 lead.
Moroz, a two-way winger and tough guy, has scored 17 goals this season and provided muscle. He won a lopsided decision in a second-period fight with Anton Cedarholm of Portland on Friday, set up Edgars Kulda for a key third-period goal, and scored in the shootout, to boot.
“We knew what (Portland) was, coming in,” Moroz said. “And we talked about it, it wasn’t going to be pretty.
“I guess we just grinded it out. We had them on the ropes
there and they battled back. We were lucky enough to get them in the shootout.”
Moroz was Edmonton’s first man in the shootout and buried it with ease, sort of.
“I’ll be honest, I wanted to go low blocker (side), but it popped up on me, so it looked a little prettier,” Moroz said.
Like the Oil Kings, Moroz rarely goes for style points. But he’ll take it, and so will they.
On Twitter: @rjmackinnon
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