VANCOUVER - For a third straight spring, the Edmonton Oil Kings and Portland Winterhawks will battle for the Western Hockey League championship but it will be just No. 2 for Oil King captain Griffin Reinhart.
A year ago, the West Vancouver native from the famous hockey family was injured. He suffered a severed foot tendon in a previous playoff round and missed the 2013 WHL final, won by the Winterhawks in six games. Two years ago, Reinhart and the Oil Kings beat the Winterhawks in seven. This year, who knows?
The best-of-seven final opens Saturday night in Portland. At stake is the Ed Chynoweth Cup and a berth in the Memorial Cup, to be hosted by the Ontario League’s London Knights (featuring elite Vancouver Canuck prospect Bo Horvat).
“Obviously from my standpoint, I’m excited to get back out there because I wasn’t able to play in the final last year,” Reinhart said Monday from Edmonton. “From a team standpoint, it’s exciting to be in the final no matter who you are playing, whether it’s Portland or any other team from the West.”
The Oil Kings and Winterhawks have been head of the class throughout the 2014 playoffs. Edmonton swept Prince Albert in four in the opening round, then disposed of both Brandon and Medicine Hat in five to capture the Eastern Conference. Portland did likewise in the West, sweeping the Vancouver Giants in four, followed by victories over Victoria and Kelowna in five apiece.
There is plenty of B.C. flavour on both the Oil Kings and Winterhawks, beginning with Reinhart, the fourth overall pick by the New York Islanders in the 2012 NHL entry draft. Edmonton netminder Tristan Jarry is from Delta and top centre Curtis Lazar from Vernon. Two former Giants, defenceman Blake Orban and checking centre Riley Keiser, also play for Edmonton.
The Winterhawks are led, in part, by Delta’s Nic Petan. Canuck draft pick Anton Cederholm is a stay-at-home blueliner on the ’Hawks while GM-coach Mike Johnston is a former Canuck assistant under Marc Crawford. Checking forward Adam Rossignol hails from Surrey.
“Portland plays a similar style to us and they try to get a lot of shots,” Reinhart said. “They have a lot of offence right now and, when you look at their roster, everybody on their team can score. But we have some good defence and I think we’ve done a pretty good job stopping the other teams' top lines. So it should be a good matchup.”
All three Reinhart boys have made it to the Memorial Cup tournament – Max and Sam went in 2011 with the Kootenay Ice, Griffin in 2012 – but none has won it. Griffin, now 20, is taking his last stab.
“It would be nice and that’s what the goal is,” he noted. “But you can’t focus on it right now, you have to focus on getting there first.”
Meanwhile, in Portland, Johnston was studying video Monday, prepping his team for the Oil Kings. The teams met just once during the regular season, a 5-4 Edmonton shootout win Dec, 6.
“I think Edmonton drives through Reinhart and Lazar,” Johnston said. “Reinhart is a top, top end defenceman and Lazar, as a centre, controls the play. He’s been their leader for a couple of years now. The rivalry? I think we have built up a playoff rivalry with them, for sure, but it doesn’t reach the stage for us like a Tri-City, or a Seattle, or the type of local rivalry you have in your own division. Certainly the first two WHL finals between us were both good series and this should be another one.”
GIANT MOVES? The WHL bantam draft goes Thursday and the Giants, with five picks in the first two rounds, are in a position to deal some for older players. Vancouver picks 8th and 10th in the first round, then 7th, 20th and 22nd in the second. The 8th pick in the first and 7th in the second are their own choices. The extra picks were collected in trades involving veterans Nathan Burns, Marek Tvrdon and the aforementioned Orban.
“I think all of our picks are in play right now,” said Jason Ripplinger, the Giants’ director of player personnel. “We’ve talked to other teams about some players and flipping some picks around. There is a chance of us even trading down to get a higher-end player.”
Last year, of course, the Giants picked 1st overall and selected Tyler Benson. This year’s first pick belongs to Brandon. The Wheat Kings are expected to stay local and take forward Stelio Mattheos of Winnipeg.
“That’s probably a no-brainer for them,” Ripplinger said.
North Shore Winter Club products Jordy Bellerive, a forward, and Nolan Kneen, a defenceman, are also touted to be very high picks.
RBC PLAYDOWNS: The BCHL champion Coquitlam Express began play in the Western Canada Cup tournament in Dauphin, Man., on a winning note Sunday as they downed Alberta’s Spruce Grove Saints 3-1 behind the two-goal effort of captain Ryan Rosenthal.
Two of the five teams competing in the WCC event will advance to the junior A national RBC tourney next month in Vernon.
The Express edged the Winnipeg Blues 2-1 in their second game Monday night.
FUTURE WATCH: Defenceman Miles Liberati, the Canucks’ 7th-round pick in 2013, is the lone Vancouver prospect to reach the Ontario League’s final. Liberati plays for the North Bay Battalion, which will meet the Guelph Storm, coached by one-time Canuck Scott Walker, for the OHL title.
Fellow Canuck prospects Dane Fox and Brendan Gaunce of the Erie Otters were eliminated in five games by Guelph last Friday. Two days earlier, Liberati’s Battalion bounced Cole Cassels and his Oshawa Generals in four straight.
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