Familiar faces, sort of, in WHL final
Winterhawks know Edmonton's stars going into rematch
The rubber puck is about to drop on the rubber match of the Portland-Edmonton rivalry.
The Winterhawks and Oil Kings are in the Western Hockey League championship series for the third year in a row, with opening games Saturday and Sunday at Moda Center.
Between their playoff and regular-season meetings, the Hawks and Oil Kings have met 16 times since the start of the 2011-12 season. Edmonton won the WHL title in seven games in 2012; Portland took the crown in six games last season.
Yet, the Portland players and general manager/coach Mike Johnston don't put much stock in the previous meetings. Teams change every year, and although the Oil Kings know full well about Derrick Pouliot, Nic Petan, Brendan Leipsic and Taylor Leier and other Portland stars, and the Winterhawks all about Edmonton's Henrik Samuelsson, Curtis Lazar and Griffin Reinhart, some unfamiliarity still reigns.
The teams have played only once this season. Edmonton won 5-4 in a shootout at home on Dec. 6.
"We had a good game up in Edmonton," Johnston says.
Portland captain Taylor Leier says the Oil Kings "have quite a bit different team than last year, with a lot of new guys. We are really familiar with their stars, but we're going to have to do some video work on their team."
The Oil Kings had another stellar year under coach Derek Laxdall. They went 50-19-2-1 (103 points, tied with Calgary for first place in the East). They scored 290 goals and gave up 179.
Like Portland, the Oil Kings have been strong in the playoffs, beating Prince Alberta 4-0, Brandon 4-1 and Medicine Hat 4-1.
Portland (54-13-2-3, 113 points) also is 12-2 in the postseason. The Winterhawks' epic 3 1/2-month record, including the playoff games, is 40-3.
Samuelsson, son of former NHLer Ulf, led the Oil Kings with 35 goals and 60 assists for 95 points during the regular season. Lazar had 41-35-76.
Brett Pollock (10-7-17) and Lazar (7-10-17) lead Edmonton in playoff points.
Goalie Tristan Jarry had very good regular-season numbers (44-14-2-1, .914 save percentage, 2.24 goals against) and has been even better in the playoffs (12-2, .929, 1.86).
Like Samuelsson and Lazar, Mitchell Moroz also returns to his third championship series against Portland. And 6-4, 200-pound defenseman Reinhart, who missed last year's series with an injury, could make e a big difference for the Oil Kings. He was the No. 4 overall pick, by the New York Islanders, in the 2012 NHL draft.
"He's at the level of Pouliot or (Mathew) Dumba," Johnston says. "A big, physical defenseman who moves the puck well. Plays a lot of minutes. We'll expect him to go against our top line, and other matchups. He's such a smart player, he won't be intimidated by our speed."
Petan, Leier, Pouliot and Dumba played with Reinhart and Lazar on Canada's world junior team this year.
"He's a really nice guy, a big player," Petan says, of Reinhart. "Long reach, really good shot."
Adds Leier: "He'll be the shutdown guy for them. We know what he's about."
Petan says the Winterhawks feel confident that their forwards can still create and score, even going against Reinhart and his mates.
"We don't feel like there is a matchup with our forwards, because of our depth of forwards," Petan says.
The Hawks' speed, puck movement and power play have been stellar throughout the playoffs.
With Reinhart, Samuelsson and Lazar, the Oil Kings possess some star power, though, and Johnston likes some of Edmonton's younger players, too.
Lazar plays a physical power forward position and has speed, while Samuelsson makes plays and has a hard shot.
"Lazar is their top player, for sure," Petan says.
In the 2012 WHL finals, Edmonton dominated Game 7 on home ice. Portland had home-ice advantage last year, but ended up securing the title at Edmonton in Game 6.
Home-ice advantage, which belongs to the Hawks again this year, could be pivotal.
"It's going to be a really good series," Leier says. "They're a really good team. We have a lot of guys who could potentially be NHL players. So do they. ... We'll try to get the first couple games at home and put them on their heels. Moda Center is going to go crazy."
The Winterhawks claimed their fourth consecutive Western Conference title last week, downing Kelowna 4-1. The Hawks have gone 16-4 in those four West finals.
Pouliot and Leipsic have been full-time players on each West title team. Reserve defenseman Josh Hanson also has been part of those teams, and Petan played some playoff games as a 15-year-old player in 2011. Four players with four West titles "that's amazing," Johnston says.
"It's kind of an expectation to win in this organization," Petan says. "We know we're going to have a chance each year. Hopefully we can make another run at (the WHL title and Memorial Cup). We knew we were going to be here, and we're excited to play Edmonton. Third time seeing them. It's going to be fun."
Leier says the Portland veterans who won the 2013 WHL title and lost in the Memorial Cup finale talked all season about returning to the tournament. With the addition of Dumba, the Hawks have been virtually unbeatable with losses only to Seattle, Victoria and Kelowna since Jan. 11 and they stand four wins away from returning to the Memorial Cup, May 16 to 25 in London, Ontario.
"It's been incredible," Leier says. "Our team chemistry is amazing, and Mike has coached us in the right way. Our coaches have coached us well there's no complacency in our game. We almost expect it of ourselves (to win titles), and that's a good thing. We strive to be the best we can be. The coaches don't give us any room to slack."
The Hawks put away Kelowna with a 7-3 road victory last weekend. But Leipsic received a five-minute major penalty for spearing and game misconduct, which left him facing potential discipline by the WHL, based on his previous suspension this season.
The midseason suspension was for "a big hit at center ice and the guy got a concussion," Johnston says. "I didn't think the action (at Kelowna) looked all that bad, when I saw it live and on video."
Petan returned from being injured in the final Victoria playoff game to star against Kelowna, scoring a hat trick in Game 4 and earning series MVP honors. He snapped out of an early funk in the series. "Once you have one good game, your confidence grows and our team's confidence grows," he says.
That also was the case with veteran netminder Corbin Boes, who replaced starter Brendan Burke in Game 2 and saved all 15 shots he saw as the Hawks rallied to win, and then backstopped the next three victories.
So, does Boes get the call against Edmonton?
"I haven't made any decision as far as lineup," Johnston says. "Brendan Burke has been our starter all year. He's played great for us. I was happy the way (Boes) came in. He looked really comfortable, and it was my feeling to give him another game. But I'm confident in Brendan Burke that he's a top-end goaltender in our league."
Boes says he'll be ready to start or back up Burke.
"I've been trying to make things simple," Boes says. "It worked out for me. I'm trying to stay composed and in the moment."