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Winterhawks “empire” hopes to strike back against Oil Kings in series sequel: WHL final preview

Could this WHL season have ended any other way?

Just six years into their existence, the Edmonton Oil Kings have the chance to be the first WHL team since Kamloops in 1994 and '95 to win back-to-back league titles. Meanwhile, the Portland Winterhawks just want to avoid coming up short in the final for the third straight season.

If last year was "A New Hope" for the fledgling Oil Kings franchise, the Hawks certainly hope the sequel becomes "The Empire Strikes Back."

Portland has increasingly embraced the "Evil Empire" moniker as the season has progressed, even posting a picture on its Facebook page identifying rows of white-clad Imperial stormtroopers as Hawks fans waiting in line for tickets. To wit, Portland's players are calling for a "whiteout" at the Rose Garden for tonight's Game 1.

The "us against the world" mentality can be powerful in sports, especially when the players are teenagers, and the Winterhawks are using the negative energy they're receiving from around the league as the last bit of motivation to finally reach the top of the WHL mountain for the first time in 15 years.

The Oil Kings, on the other hand, were always supposed to be back, in a sense. That they got here is no less of an accomplishment, though, especially considering the seven-game push they got from their Alberta rivals, the Calgary Hitmen.

For Edmonton, the allure of a second straight trip to a Memorial Cup, and a chance for a mulligan on last year's fourth-place finish, should be enough motivation to maintain focus on the task at hand.

But will the Oil Kings be desperate enough to match a Hawks team and fanbase that's fed up with losing league titles? Edmonton coach Derek Laxdal is trying to keep the emotions of last year's seven-game epic running high by calling tonight's series opener "Game 8." If his team responds, this could well be another classic that goes down to the very end.

After the jump, BTN's Scott Sepich and Neate Sager take a look at the final.

(1) Edmonton Oil Kings (51-15-2-4, 108 points, beat Kootenay 4-1, Medicine Hat 4-0 & Calgary 4-3) vs. (1) Portland Winterhawks (57-12-1-2, 117 points, beat Everett 4-2, Spokane 4-0 & Kamloops 4-1)

Season series: Edmonton 1-0-0-0. Odds favour: Portland 62 per cent. Most likely statistical outcome: Portland in 7. Prediction: Portland in 7.

Scott Sepich on the Winterhawks: Some have said that this rematch seemed "inevitable" all season, which somewhat diminishes the job Portland did in reloading to make a return trip to the final in seemingly better shape than last year.

Five of the Winterhawks' top seven forwards from last year's series against the Oil Kings are gone, though the two who remain (Brendan Leipsic and Ty Rattie) are perhaps the most dynamic offensive players in the series, along with linemate Nicolas Petan. It's hard to fathom now that Petan was a seldom-used fourth-liner in last year's playoffs, when he failed to register a single point in 22 games.

The Oil Kings will have their hands full limiting that top unit, but also have to keep up with the Oliver Bjorkstrand-Chase De Leo-Taylor Leier line, which has upped its offensive game in the playoffs.

Portland's top four defencemen — Seth Jones, Derrick Pouliot, Troy Rutkowski and Tyler Wotherspoon — have been worked hard over the last four weeks but have yet to show any signs of wearing down. This group would have been formidable even without Jones entering the mix this season, but his presence has elevated this quartet to one of the best the league has ever seen.

Along with goalie Mac Carruth, a great puckhandler who occasionally gets a little too adventurous in leaving the comfort of his crease, the Hawks backline excels at moving the puck out of their own zone. The forwards, from lines one through four, excel at maintaining possession in the attacking zone.

At their best (which has been often this season), the Winterhawks completely dictate the flow and character of a game. They scored 165 goals more than their opponents in the regular season (and 40 more in 15 playoff games) largely because they simply have the puck more often than the other team.

If the Oil Kings are going to repeat in this series, they're going to have to flip the script on the Hawks. The only time Portland has been thoroughly outplayed this playoff season was Game 3 in Kamloops, when the Blazers did everything the Winterhawks do best: win board battles, forecheck with success, and move the puck quickly from end to end. If that sounds like an easy recipe for winning, tell that to the countless teams that have tried and failed to match Portland's relentless energy for 60 minutes.

Edmonton is clearly the best opponent the Winterhawks have seen this year, though, and a lot will be learned from Game 1. If the Oil Kings can demonstrate the ability to be the agressors, they'll have hope even if they lose tonight.

Neate Sager on the Oil Kings: Edmonton can match up relatively well man for man with the Winterhawks, save for the obvious fact there is only one Seth Jones on the planet.

Edmonton would be a hands-down pick to become the WHL's first back-to-back champion in nearly two decades if captain and star defenceman Griffin Reinhart was healthy and the opponent was anyone but the vaunted Winterhawks. Oddly enough, though, small obstacles have popped up on their road to a repeat. Losing Reinhart to a torn foot ligament is a huge blow, plus the Oil Kings have been relatively stretched by having to play 16 games just get out of the not overly stacked Eastern Conference, including a potentially draining seven-gamer against the Calgary Hitmen in the third round. In 2012, they needed only 13 games to get through three rounds. That might have left them with greater energy reserves as they outlasted Portland in a seven-game final after eking out three one-goal wins.

Overall, this is a championship team regardless of what happens across the next two weeks. Edmonton boasts balanced strength from the goal out, with Laurent Brossoit (1.58 average, .941 save pct. in playoffs) once again a candidate to be the Dub's playoff MVP. Carolina Hurricanes third-rounder and acting captain Keegan Lowe, along with Edmonton Oilers high second-rounder David Musil, each went beyond the call of duty shoring up the Reinhart-less rearguard groups during the decisive stage of the Calgary series. The entire defence corps, including 16-year-old rookie Dysin Mayo, are going to be more pressed than ever before since the Winterhawks are so deep through their third and fourth lines.

The big if is whether Edmonton's already short-staffed back end will stretched thinner by penalty problems. Part of this was due to some, um, baffling officiating, but the Oil Kings have been on the penalty kill 80 times through 16 playoff games, a rate far too high for a team about to play Portland. The other half of their special teams is also pretty rank, as they did not score on their final 20 power plays against Calgary.

The discipline and the power-play outage can be correctable. Edmonton, provided it cleans that up, has a shot thanks to its experience and ability to get offence by committee. New York Rangers prospect Michael St. Croix (team-leading 10 goals, 22 post-season points) has been steady as rent whenever Edmonton has been hard up for a goal, while veterans Stephane Legault and Dylan Wruck and imports Edgars Kulda and Martin Gernat (an offensive defenceman) have each been good for roughly a point a game. The second-line matchup feature Phoenix Coyotes late first-rounder Henrik Samuelsson (nine goals, 17 points and playoffs) will probably be integral to Edmonton's attempts to sustain momentum and pressure, but doing so hinges on Samuelsson staying out of the penalty box.

Edmonton can make a run at this if it executes. Their growth together is reflected in the fact they cut their goals-against by about 0.5 per game, allowing only 151 this season after allowing 189 in 2011-12. Part of that was due to the quality of their conference, but one could also take as proof of their veterans' commitment to close out teams instead of being laissez-faire and winning 6-4 or 7-5 because they can. As far as not having a mental out goes, the defending champs have their slogan of Unfinished Business, a reference to being the first team to come from the MasterCard Memorial Cup last spring in Shawinigan, Que. However, after losing consecutive league finals and being sanctioned by the WHL, the Winterhawks might be more predisposed to play like losing is not an option. Ultimately, it is just daunting to win back-to-back in major junior, especially the WHL. Recent history is strewn with teams which won a season ahead of schedule but didn't catch all the breaks the second time.

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