While the results so far have been much the same, this year’s Edmonton Oil Kings have some notable differences from their predecessors, who won the Western Hockey League championship two years ago and made it to the final last season.
Those Oil Kings were identified largely by snipers like Michael St. Croix, Dylan Wruck and Tyler Maxwell, players who had only limited size but immense skill.
They’ve given way to a team dominated up front by power forwards like Henrik Samuelsson, Mitchell Moroz and Curtis Lazar.
"We’re (playing) a little bit more of a lunchbucket style," said Edmonton head coach Derek Laxdal, whose Oil Kings host the Wheat Kings tonight in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal. "We have to grind it out, we have to work for everything we get. Obviously we do have some skill, we don’t have the same depth we had last year, but we have a different identity. I think we’re a type of team that’s got to work for everything we get and we understand that, and I think that makes us probably a hungrier team in the end."
Laxdal is hesitant to compare this year’s team to those of the previous two seasons, but the Oil Kings are on the right track. They earned the No.1 seed in the conference by posting a 50-19-2-1 record, topping the 50-win barrier for the third season in a row, then swept the Prince Albert Raiders out of the first round of the playoffs in four straight games.
The similarities also include a strong defensive corps, led by Griffin Reinhart and Cody Corbett, that boasts both size and skill. The team is also set in net, with Tristan Jarry providing a seamless transition from standout Laurent Brossoit.
"I think any successful team, you have to have goaltending, and we’re very fortunate with the kids that we have had over the last three years, with Laurent Brossoit and Tristan Jarry coming into the fold," said Laxdal, a former Wheat King player who went on to a lengthy playing and coaching pro career before taking over the bench of the Oil Kings in 2010. "So if you look at any team in the Western Hockey League, you can have as much as you want up front at forward and the back end, but if you can’t stop pucks, it’s pretty tough to win games in any league."
The Oil Kings, who went 3-1 versus the Wheat Kings during the regular season, can play at both ends of the ice. Edmonton’s specialty teams provide an interesting contrast with Brandon’s, with the Oil Kings finishing only 17th in the WHL in power play (19.6 per cent) during the regular season, but second in penalty killing (85.3 per cent), while the Wheat Kings were second in power play (25.9) and 18th in PK (75.2).
As their recent playoff history suggests, the Oil Kings do have much more experience at this time of the season, with eight players who won the Ed Chynoweth Cup two years ago and 11 who have seen action in a WHL final. That experience carries a lot of weight with Laxdal.
"If you look at kids like Dyson Mayo and Brett Pollock, who were 16-year-olds last year for us that have taken a bigger role on our hockey club this year and become top-four defencemen, top six forwards, I definitely agree that that playoff experience is huge," he said. "And it’s the same thing for the Brandon Wheat Kings. However far they go this year, they’ve got a young group of kids that’s going to come back next year, and that experience is going to be vital to their growth."
The Oil Kings had three veteran players who missed the first round against the Raiders. Laxdal hopes that 56-point scorer Reid Petryk is ready to start the series, while rugged forward Brandon Baddock and blue-liner Blake Orban could also appear at some point.