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Portland and Edmonton square off for rubber match: WHL final preview

Cam Charron
Buzzing The Net

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Since 2012,the Oil Kings and Winterhawks are both 1-1 in the WHL Finals (Greg Southam:Edmonton Journal)


It's rare that two teams meet in the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, let alone in the final, yet for the third consecutive season the Western Hockey League championship features the Edmonton Oil Kings and the Portland Winterhawks.

In 2012, the Oil Kings dispatched the Hawks in seven games after leaning on veterans Rhett Rachinski and Jordan Peddle for multi-goal games late in the series. The Winterhawks responded last season, winning in six on the back of goaltender Mac Carruth as well as top scorers Oliver Bjorkstrand and Ty Rattie.

The continued success for each organization since that original series reflects both clubs' ability to recruit and add quality players to the lineup. Of the 36 skaters who dressed for the team's Game 7 match in 2012, only six return for the Winterhawks and just five for the Oil Kings. Neither of the clubs' leading scorers (Bjorkstrand for Portland and Brett Pollock for Edmonton) were around for that original series. The starting goaltenders in this series, Brendan Burke and Tristan Jarry, were green backups back in 2012.

This year could be the last time these two squads meet for a while, however. The series is the sunset WHL action of some longtime, key members for both squads such as Henrik Samuelsson and Griffin Reinhart on Edmonton's side, while longtime 'Hawks Brendan Leipsic, Taylor Leier and Derrick Pouliot will likely make the jump to pro hockey in September. For the 13 players on either roster that have been around for all three series, the 2014 iteration is for more than the Ed Chynoweth Trophy, but also to determine which team gets to claim overall dominance during the most recent WHL era.

(1) Edmonton Oil Kings (50-19-2-1, 103 pts) vs. (2) Portland Winterhawks (54-13-2-3, 113 pts)

Season series: Edmonton won the only meeting in a 5-4 shootout. Odds favour: Portland 80%. Most mathematically likely outcome: Portland in 5. Prediction: Portland in 6.

Just how big is that 80% odds advantage for Portland? Initially, I thought that Portland being favoured by 60% against Kelowna in the Western Conference final was a tad generous. The Winterhawks dominated that series and the odds actually underestimated the dominant Hawks. Not only was the series over in five games, but Portland outshot Kelowna 221-166 throughout, including a 118-60 margin in the critical game 2 and Game 3.

The odds generated by BTN resident statistician Rob Pettapiece don't factor in shots, though. They do consider goal differential (Portland +131, Edmonton +111) relative to strength of schedule (Portland had success in that difficult U.S. Division, while there were few contenders in the WHL's Eastern Conference). As a result, the Winterhawks, who not only had one of the country's best records despite the sixth highest strength of schedule among Canadian Hockey League clubs, are rated highly.

There's always the "never tell me the odds" component for Edmonton, but per our numbers, Portland has twice as much chance of sweeping the series (17%) as the Oil Kings have at winning in 7. — Charron

How will the Oil Kings’ back end handle the Winterhawks’ deep offense? Edmonton averaged fewer than two goals against a game throughout the first three rounds. Not to mention, the 179 goals they allowed in the regular season is the fewest among all 22 Dub clubs.

Nonetheless, it goes without saying that Edmonton’s defence will have its hands full against Portland. They are facing a club with three players that scored north of 90 points and another three that reached the 70-point mark. In addition, the Winterhawks’ power play is clicking at 26.7 per cent.

Reinhart, the New York Islanders first-rounder, is the crux of Edmonton’s back end. It’s crucial for him to steer the ship by playing a sound defensive game but he can’t do it all on his own. Veterans Cody Corbett and Ashton Sautner and NHL draft prospects Dysin Mayo and Aaron Irving have to try to keep Portland to the outside just as they did against Medicine Hat. Moreover, the whole blueline crew has to be on top of their game or the Winterhawks will exploit their weak defenders. — Friesen

What's happening in net for Portland, anyway? While Brendan Burke carried much of the load for Portland this season, he lost his job to overage backup Corbin Boes midway through Game 2. Boes had a .940 save percentage the rest of the way in the series, earning a nomination for the CHL goaltender of the week and making it difficult for coach-GM Mike Johnston to rationalize giving the net back to Burke in this series.

One can hope that if Boes is indeed the starter for Johnston going forward, that he's cleaned all the Lethbridge out of his system. Boes, before being traded to Portland before the trade deadline, played 35 games for the Hurricanes this season, going 1-3 against the Eastern champs despite a strong .921 save percentage. I'd bet that Portland don't allow 45.8 shots per game against the Kings like the 'Canes did, though. — Charron

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Oliver Bjorkstrand (CP)

How will Tristan Jarry fare in net? The Pittsburgh Penguins prospect ultimately hasn’t been pushed in his first major junior playoff run. He hasn’t had to steal any games because of the Oil Kings’ strong play in front of him. In addition, Jarry’s workload has been fairly average as he averaged 27.5 shots a game against the Prince Albert Raiders, 25.6 against the Brandon Wheat Kings and 25.4 against the Tigers. His 1.86 average and .929 save percentage need to be looked at in the right context.

That said, Jarry’s showing against the Winterhawks will dictate where he stands among the Dub’s top goalies. It will be the first time in his WHL post-season career where he will be counted on to at the very least match the performance of the netminder across the ice from him. — Friesen

How will the Portland offence fare against a goaltender like Jarry? Thus far, the Winterhawks have shot the puck at an elevated 11.5% rate throughout the playoffs, which is presumably a little unsustainable considering the combined weighted save percentage of the goaltenders they've faced is .909.

The debate can rage as to whether Jarry qualifies as one of the league's elite netminders. While he had the best average this season with 2.24, his .914 save percentage was tied for eighth. The Winterhawks have already had no trouble against the goalies ranked first (Coleman Vollrath), fourth (Jordon Cooke) and seventh (Patrik Polivka) in saves rate.

Much of the Portland attack has come by way of the power play this playoffs, but they've still scored more than three 'non-power-play"'goals per game. The lineup has been top-heavy during the postseason; the top 5% of Portland's offence has accounted for 40% of the goals (that would be Bjorkstrand and Leipsic, with 10 and 7 even-strength goals apiece).

This series gets interesting if the top of the lineup goes cold for Portland. Jarry is a good enough goaltender for that to be a possibility. — Charron

Will Brett Pollock cool off? The 18-year-old winger has been the Oil Kings’ pleasant surprise in the second season. He leads the team in goals with 10 and sits tied with Curtis Lazar in points with 17. To think a year ago he was a healthy scratch for the entire post-season.

It’s hard to suggest that the 6-foot-2, 183-pound winger, who is ranked 34th among North American skaters by NHL CSS, will slow down because he has seemed to get better with every passing game. The proof is in the pudding in how Pollock notched four goals and two assists in Edmonton’s last two matches against the Medicine Hat Tigers. Much of his success has come because he has generated quality chemistry with Samuelsson and Edgars Kulda on the Oil Kings’ second line. But when looking into Pollock's crystal ball, one has to remember that he will have to elevate his game another notch to keep up his current scoring pace against a team with as much star power as Portland. — Friesen

Will Henrik Samuelsson find his scoring touch? Samuelsson has 15 points in 14 contests and has worked vigorously at both ends of the ice. The Phoenix Coyotes first-round pick has struggled, though, to find the back of the net with only two goals. This is partially because his linemates, Pollock and Kulda, have gotten the bounces to finish off the plays. The 19-year-old centre, however, has also seemed to grip his stick a little too tight and pass up some quality shots at times.

Samuelsson's scoring struggles didn't garner much attention in the first three rounds because the Oil Kings were dominating. One can count on that changing if Edmonton struggles to keep up with Portland on the scoreboard. — Friesen

Can the Portland defence shut down two waves of Edmonton forwards? Much has been made about how the acquisition of Mat Dumba and his subsequent return to junior from the Minnesota Wild really completed the Portland lineup. The move has given Portland two threatening defensive pairings, each with an offensive and a defensive specialist. Dumba has found himself with Garrett Haar, a 6-foot-0, 208-lb NCAA defector. Pouliot, the Pittsburgh Penguins prospect, has been with big rookie Swedish defenceman Anton Cederholm and those two have generally taken the tough assignments for Portland so far in the playoffs.

Edmonton is a bit stronger at the top than the opponents Portland has faced thus far. A red-hot second line means that Dumba and Haar will have to be deployed in a more defensive role. You'll be able to tell the Winterhawks are ready for this if Dumba is able to continue scoring at his current pace. Of his nine post-season assists, only two have been on the powerplay.

Meanwhile, 16 of Pouliot's 28 postseason points have come on the power play, but he's generally successful when he's able to stop attacks by keeping the play at the other end of the ice. The Oil Kings need to use some of that size up front to force Pouliot into making turnovers in his defensive zone. On the whole, the Portland top four match up very nicely with Edmonton's top six. — Charron

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