EDMONTON – The Edmonton Oil Kings vowed this season to #TakeItBack. Their new Twitter hashtag is #TookItBack as they’ll represent the Western Hockey League at the Memorial Cup for the second time in three years.
Edmonton retains eight players from the team that lost a tiebreaker game to the Memorial Cup host and eventual champion Shawinigan Cataractes two years ago.
These Oil Kings must mentally and physically recover for this year’s tournament on the fly.
After needing seven games to beat the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL championship series, the Oil Kings will have just five days between Game 7 and their Cup opener to travel and prepare.
The host London Knights kick off the 2014 MasterCard Memorial Cup on Friday against the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Val-d’Or Foreurs. Val-d’Or has an even shorter turnaround having won their Game 7 against Baie-Comeau on Tuesday.
Edmonton’s first game Saturday is against a more rested Guelph Storm, who needed just five games to secure the OHL title last week.
“We’ll gain from the experience of our last Memorial Cup two years ago,” Oil Kings head coach Derek Laxdal says. “They are going to be experienced in the type of tournament that it is, a short-term event, the media, the intensity of the event and the magnitude of the event.
“We’re going to have to be able to ramp it up pretty quick. Our group has been a resilient group. They come to play when it’s time to play and we’ve had a lot of success on the road.”
The Oil Kings are back in the Memorial Cup because of their poise.
They weren’t rattled after blowing a three-goal lead and losing in overtime to Portland in Sunday’s Game 6 at Edmonton’s Rexall Place. They flew to Oregon and beat the Winterhawks 4-2 on Monday for the title.
The Oil Kings were also down 0-2 to start the series and trailed by two goals in Game 3 before scoring three unanswered goals for the win.
Their fearlessness has roots in tragedy. Former Oil King winger Kristians Pelss died after leaping from a bridge in Riga, Latvia, almost a year ago. His friends said his death was an accident.
Pelss was a member of Edmonton’s WHL championship team in 2012 and a teammate of several current Oil Kings.
His death gave Edmonton’s veteran players a fresh perspective and an emotional maturity they carry onto the ice with them.
“It’s so tough what happened to Pelssy,” captain Curtis Lazar says. “He was such a great friend and a competitor. The guys on the team that knew him, that guy would come to the rink and know how to put a smile on your face.
“The ‘Play for Pelssy’ motto this year really just motivated us. It’s another thing that brought us closer together, but we knew when we got on the ice and went to battle for each other that he’d be looking over us. He’s a big part of it this year.”
Adds Laxdal: “The kids that are here appreciate what they have and the opportunities they have. They understand how life is so precious with the loss Kristians Pelss. It definitely has been a part of our year and our playoff run.”
The Oil Kings fell just short of last year’s Memorial Cup in Saskatoon when they lost in six games to Portland in the WHL final.
This edition of the Oil Kings has less pure offensive skill than the previous two, but is capable of producing goals in bunches as they did in a four-goal second period Monday.
Henrik Samuelsson, who is the son of former NHLer Ulf, Latvian left-winger Edgars Kulda and Lazar averaged just over a point per game in the playoffs. Samuelsson and Lazar are first-round NHL draft picks of Phoenix and Ottawa respectively.
But when the Oil Kings are on top of their game, opposing teams must run the gauntlet of a ferocious forecheck and grinding defensive-zone coverage to get to their net. Edmonton gave up the fewest goals in the WHL this season at 176.
Defenceman Griffin Reinhart, a first-round pick of the New York Islanders, was named the WHL’s playoff MVP. He helped hold Portland’s top snipers Nicolas Petan, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Brendan Leipsic to a combined two goals in their series.
“Going through the teams the past three years, we’ve had a lot of skill in the past and this year we don’t have as much firepower up front as we’d like to,” Lazar says.
“Props to us for being able to recognize that and buying into the game plan. We really have to focus that much more on defence and it’s paid dividends for us.”