The Edmonton Oil Kings might have found that catalytic event that makes it clear last season was last season.
For the second time in six days, the team many prognosticators deemed capable of being the WHL's first repeat champion in 18 years lost a third-period lead and dropped a 5-4 shootout decision to a league powerhouse. Wednesday it was against the Kamloops Blazers despite being up a goal and on the power play in the final two minutes of regulation; last week it came against the rival Calgary Hitmen on the season premiere of Sportsnet's Friday Night Hockey.
Perhaps there's some inexorable law that makes it too difficult to win back-to-back in the Dub, which is a deep league. Or Edmonton counted on their two main graduates, defencemen Mark Pysyk (AHL) and Martin Gernat, more than anyone initially realized. With the exception of those two, forward Kristians Pelss the overages, nearly everyone of consequence was back, with Curtis Lazar in line to become an offensive centrepiece while high NHL picks Griffin Reinhart, Henrik Samuelsson and Mitch Moroz would all become more prominent.
After the way they played against the albeit road-weary Blazers on Wednesday, there's a sense the championship hangover might be abated. As Global TV Edmonton's Dean Millard phrased it, "I think realized how good they will have to play this year if they are to defend."
From Rob Tychowski:
So what do they take away from this? That they gave the top team in the CHL everything it could handle, or that they gassed it away on the power play in the final moments of the third period?
"We have to stay positive," said Moroz. "We out-shot them 2-1 in our building. We can't be down on ourselves. They're the best team in Canada and we were right there with them."
That's what makes the loss so aggravating. They had 'em, and let 'em go.
"It definitely stings a little bit, but we battled, it's probably one of the best games we've played all year, so we have to build off that," said Samuelsson. "Kamloops is a great team, they have a lot of top-end guys. If we keep playing like this we're going to win a lot of games." (Edmonton Sun)
The potential exists, even if the results have been slow in coming. Edmonton, as Evan Daum astutely noted, does have only one win over a team currently in a playoff position through 11 games. That is still too small a sample to make firm assessments. While they haven't had to deal with having much of their nucleus in NHL training camps the way other defending champions with aspirations of repeating have (see the 2011-12 Saint John Sea Dogs), they did lose their linchpin, Pysyk, and have had injuries. Carolina Hurricanes pick Keegan Lowe, who has a case for being more advanced than the one-year-younger, higher-ceiling Reinhart, has worked through a knee injury. Glue guy Stephane Legault, who was one of their best players at last May's MasterCard Memorial Cup, is also sidelined at least a month with a broken foot.
Long story short, it's safe to say the halo effect that comes from winning a championship has probably dissipated in northern Alberta. That shouldn't lead to to revisionist readings of last season — claims Edmonton wasn't tested enough through the Eastern Conference portion of the playoffs or that goalie Laurent Brossoit took his game to a level that defies sustainability during the last 2 1/2 months of the WHL season.
There should be a modicum of credit to the defending champs: the Oil Kings have enough talent and seasoning to make one believe they'll be heard from. Wednesday affirmed they can't take anything for granted; that's as much a lesson for us as it for them.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
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