Edmonton and Calgary hockey fans haven’t had a lot to cheer about lately on the NHL front, but they can’t complain about their major junior hockey clubs.
The Oil Kings are the class of the Eastern Conference. After winning an Ed Chynoweth Cup in their fifth year as a franchise last season, Edmonton is poised to repeat this year, or at least take a close swing at it. Not to mention, with 17-year-old puck-stopper Tristan Jarry and 18-year-old star forward Curtis Lazar expected to spend two more years in Edmonton, the future looks bright in Alberta’s capital beyond this year.
Rebuild isn’t in the Hitmen’s vocabulary. Following winning a championship in 2010, it only took Calgary one year to regroup and get back into the second season. This year, the Hitmen aren’t regarded as “just a playoff team” as they were last post-season. They are now the real deal, capable of going all the way.
Here is a preview of the WHL’s Eastern Conference final between the Oil Kings and Hitmen.
(1) Edmonton Oil Kings (51-15-2-4, 108 points, beat Kootenay 4-1 and Medicine Hat 4-0) vs. (3) Calgary Hitmen (46-21-1-4, 97 points, beat Swift Current 4-1 and Red Deer 4-1)
Season series: Hitmen 4-2-0-0. Odds favour: Oil Kings 79 percent. Prediction: Oil Kings in 6.
Why the Oil Kings should win: Edmonton is simply the team to beat. They have more experience, scoring power, a stronger back end, and the best puck stopper in the league (Laurent Brossoit).
Besides dropping game 2 to the Kootenay Ice 2-1 in their first-round matchup, the Oil Kings have been practically perfect in the second season. They have scored 44 goals and only allowed nine in the back of their own net. In addition, they have only allowed two goals against on 47 penalty kills and their power play is clicking at 27 percent.
General manager Bob Green told Chris O’Leary of the Edmonton Journal that the reason for his squad’s uncanny success is their confident swagger.
“We’re a more confident team,” Green said. “Last year we were chartering waters that we didn’t know much about and we weren’t sure of how to react to different things: the ups and the downs of a series and everything else.”
“I think we’re more prepared for that. We’re more mature, a little older. You’ve got to be prepared for everything in a playoffs series. Little things can dictate how a series is going to go and you’ve got to be able to recover from those things, good and bad. I think we’re more prepared in that regard and I think the maturity of our team and the experience of last year helps us a lot.”
Why Brossoit might be a robot: The Calgary Flames prospect was a machine throughout the first two rounds. He didn’t even average one-goal against, maintaining a .97 average. Not to mention, his save percentage of .963 is arguably even more impressive. And his worst game stats wise was a 1.60 average and a .923 save percentage in game 2 against Kootenay.
The Hitmen’s offensive arsenal will be a much tougher challenge for Brossoit than his last two opponents; however, that’s not to say the Surrey, B.C., native hasn’t faced elite goal scorers so far. He went up against 2014 draft sensation Sam Reinhart in round one, not allowing him to find the back of the net once, and top 2013 draft prospect Hunter Shinkaruk only lit the lamp behind him a single time in the second round.
Why the Oil Kings’ offense is unstoppable: Edmonton proved yet again that their offense is complete as everyone, besides Brossoit of course, registered a point throughout the first two rounds.
Stephane Legault led them in points, notching five goals and eight assists. But New York Rangers prospect Michael St. Croix with 12 points and Phoenix Coyotes first-rounder Henrik Samuelsson with 11 weren’t that far behind.
Last playoff, Edmonton’s three overagers – Jordan Peddle, Tyler Maxwell and Rhett Rachinski – played huge roles for the team down the stretch. Different faces, but this year the Oil Kings’ 20-year-olds are repeating history. Trevor Cheek and Dylan Wruck combined for five goals and 17 points in nine games and TJ Foster scored a goal and an assist in two games since returning from his foot injury.
The Oil Kings’ back end didn’t do too shabby on the score sheet either. The seven defenceman who dressed combined for 34 points, outscoring the Hitmen’s blueline by 18 in one-less game.
Calgary might be able to contain one or two of Edmonton's top scorers, but it seems their uncanny depth will be just too much for the Hitmen to handle.
How the Hitmen could win: In one word: motivation. Junior hockey followers have given credit to the Hitmen all year as a strong team, but never as the top dog in the Eastern Conference. Nearly everyone expected them to go on to fall to the Oil Kings after making some noise in the second season. It’s their opportunity to prove the majority wrong.
Regular-season series don’t count for much in the playoffs, but beatinChris Driedger (WHL.ca)g the Oil Kings in four of their six matches should help the Hitmen’s confidence to some degree as they lineup against the Ed Chynoweth Cup favourites.
Why Driedger can keep up with Brossoit: Chris Driedger doesn’t necessarily have to match Brossoit save for save, but he has to stay with him for the Hitmen to have a shot at pulling off the upset.
It isn’t unprecedented for the Ottawa Senators prospect to outshine Brossoit. On September 28, he maintained a .971 save percentage, while the Oil Kings netminder mustered .900 numbers. And on December 7, the Winnipeg native posted a .944 save percentage, besting Brossoit’s .891 performance.
Driedger has been spectacular thus far in the second season. In fact, his numbers aren’t that far off Brossoit’s. Throughout 10-playoff games, he has maintained a 1.73 average, a .946 save percentage and has let in two or less goals in eight of the games.
Why Brassart needs another big night: Brady Brassart had a pair of huge performances for the Hitmen in their first two playoffs rounds. The 6-foot-1, 192-pound centre netted hat tricks in Calgary's first games against Swift Current and Red Deer.
The Hitmen need everyone firing on all cylinders to keep up with the Oil Kings' offense, but especially Brassart. If he can muster another clutch performance, it could be the difference in a lone victory, which could essentially be the difference in a series win or loss.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen