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Chance to win WHL championship has Oil Kings ready for big crowd, fierce battle against Thunderbirds

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With the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in the cancellation of the Western Hockey League playoffs for the past two seasons, the public health crisis has cheated young players hoping to play in big games out of that opportunity.

But for the Edmonton Oil Kings, who have taken advantage of the return of the playoffs this year with a thrilling run to the league’s final, the stage is now set for a sensational finish.

“I think it’s just great for the kids to be playing competitive hockey and playing… for something,” Oil Kings head coach Brad Lauer told reporters after the team practised in Edmonton on Friday.

“It’s something they’ve been missing.”

The Oil Kings skate at practice in Edmonton on June 10, 2022. Global News

After a thrilling win over the Seattle Thunderbirds thanks to a goal scored in the dying seconds of Game 4 on Wednesday, the Oil Kings are up 3-1 in their series and have given themselves a chance to win a WHL championship at home on Saturday night.

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READ MORE: Oil Kings coach impressed by players’ resilience to deliver Game 4 win against Thunderbirds

“They know what’s at stake,” Lauer said when asked how his players are feeling ahead of Game 5. “They’re having fun with it.

“This is their junior moment. There’s some guys who will never be back in this league after this year.”

With many expecting a large crowd for Game 5 at Rogers Place on Saturday night, something that has happened less often since the pandemic began, Oil Kings defenceman Luke Prokop said he and his teammates got a taste of what that may be like thanks to energetic crowds they played for in Washington in Game 3 and Game 4.

“Their crowd, their atmosphere — it’s a little bit intimidating, but it’s also (fun),” he said. “We haven’t really experienced a crowd like that in a really long time.”

READ MORE: Oil Kings build on series lead, beat out Seattle Thunderbirds 3-2

Prokop noted that many players on the Oil Kings have experience playing massive games in front of massive numbers of fans having played in World Junior Ice Hockey Championships.

“They’ve played in front of big crowds,” he said. “Big games, big moments.

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“But it’s also an opportunity for guys to step up and just play their game. At the end of the day, it is for the championship and it is a huge crowd, but it’s another game… Go out there and play your role and do it to the best of your ability.”

Edmonton Oil Kings defenceman Luke Prokop speaks to reporters on June 10, 2022. Global News

Lauer and Prokop noted the Thunderbirds have faced elimination games before and fared well.

“They’ve done a very good job in their playoff run,” Lauer said. “They’ve been in situations like this. They’re very comfortable being in (games like this).

“For us, it’s all about us getting ready and making sure we’re doing the things we’re capable of doing and doing them for 60 minutes.”

Lauer noted that in part because of injuries and fatigue, the Oil Kings did not have their best game on Wednesday night.

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“When you’re not playing well, you’ve still got to do those little things,” he said. “I really thought our guys stuck with it.

“At the end of the day, we found a way to get the win.”

Edmonton Oil Kings head coach Brad Lauer speaks to reporters on June 10, 2022. Global News

The victory came thanks to a dramatic game-winning goal scored by Edmonton defenceman Logan Dowhaniuk with just over four seconds left in what had been a 2-2 game.

“I was on the bench,” Prokop said as he recalled the moment Dowhaniuk scored. “I think everyone was thinking that we’re just going to go to overtime and nothing was really going to come of it — nothing usually comes of it.

“And then all of a sudden, I just heard the ping of the post… and I heard everyone go nuts.”

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READ MORE: Edmonton Oil Kings’ Luke Prokop wins WHL humanitarian award for pushing for inclusion in hockey

Prokop said he and his teammates fully expect the Thunderbirds to start Saturday’s game by coming out with a “big push.”

“They’ve been resilient (when facing elimination),” he said. “We know they’re going to come out hard.”

However, Prokop added that he believes when the Oil Kings play the way they can play and the way they have been coached to play, he does not believe another team in the WHL can beat them this year.

“The teams both match up well against each other,” Lauer said, noting that the Oil Kings’ success has come in large part thanks to every player helping the team in winning games.

“We’ve always got contributions throughout our lineup. And going through the playoffs, when you can have depth like that, it helps you as a team.”

READ MORE: Cossa earns shutout in Oil Kings’ 4-0 win over Thunderbirds in Game 3 of WHL championship series

Prokop said this season has been a whirlwind for him. He started the season by attending training camp for the Nashville Predators, the NHL team that drafted him in 2020. Then he was traded to the Oil Kings by the Calgary Hitmen early in the season.

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“This year’s gone by so fast,” Prokop said before explaining the bonds he has forged with his fellow Oil Kings. “Just getting to know the guys has been awesome.

“The part that I’ve enjoyed the most is just the memories we’ve made.”

READ MORE: Edmonton Oil Kings embracing chance to win WHL championship in series against Seattle Thunderbirds

He described the team as a close-knit group of players he believes will end up being “friends for life.”

“These are guys I call my brothers,” Prokop said, adding that the chance to win a WHL championship together is an “awesome” opportunity he is excited to have.

Lauer said the Oil Kings will be without forward Brendan Kuny in Saturday night’s game. He suffered a concussion from a hit in Game 4 and his injury is considered day-to-day.

Forward Dylan Guenther also remains injured day-to-day. Lauer said he is “progressing nicely” but likely will not play Saturday. Forward Jaxsen Wiebe is also injured.

Profile photo on Edmonton Oil Kings player Dylan Guenther during WHL (Western Hockey League) hockey action against the Calgary Hitmen in Calgary, on March 5, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Larry MacDougal

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