Ice face Oil Kings in inevitable WHL East final

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It’s a matchup so probable even a casual observer of the WHL could have predicted it months ago.

Since October, the Edmonton Oil Kings and Winnipeg Ice have jockeyed for position as favourites to win the league’s first championship in three seasons.

SERIES PRIMER

The Matchup:

Winnipeg Ice (53-10-3-2, 111 points, first in Eastern Conference and first overall) vs. Edmonton Oil Kings (50-14-3-1, 104 points, second in Eastern Conference and second overall)

How They Got Here:

Edmonton swept the Lethbridge Hurricanes in conference quarter-final and the Red Deer Rebels in the semis.
• Winnipeg needed five games to eliminate the Prince Albert Raiders in a quarter-final and five games to oust the Moose Jaw Warriors.

The Matchup:

Winnipeg Ice (53-10-3-2, 111 points, first in Eastern Conference and first overall) vs. Edmonton Oil Kings (50-14-3-1, 104 points, second in Eastern Conference and second overall)

How They Got Here:

• Edmonton swept the Lethbridge Hurricanes in conference quarter-final and the Red Deer Rebels in the semis.
• Winnipeg needed five games to eliminate the Prince Albert Raiders in a quarter-final and five games to oust the Moose Jaw Warriors.

The Schedule:

Game 1: Friday, at Winnipeg, 7 p.m.;
Game 2: Saturday at Winnipeg, 7 p.m.;
Game 3: Monday at Edmonton, 8 p.m.;
Game 4: Wednesday at Edmonton, 8 p.m.;
x-Game 5: Friday, May 27 at Edmonton, 8 p.m.;
x-Game 6: Sunday, May 29 at Winnipeg, 5 p.m.;
x-Game 7: Tuesday, May 31 at Winnipeg, 7 p.m.
x-if necessary

Head-to-Head:

Edmonton won three of four regular-season meetings, with Winnipeg’s lone victory, a 5-2 decision, coming on Dec. 11 at Wayne Fleming Arena.

NHL Draft Picks:

• Oil Kings (8): LW Jake Neighbours (St. Louis); RW Dylan Guenther (Arizona); D Kaiden Guhle (Montreal); D Luke Prokop (Nashville); G Sebastian Cossa (Detroit); C Jakub Demek (Vegas); C Justin Sourdif (Florida); C Jalen Luypen (Chicago)
• Ice (4): C Jack Finley (Tampa); RW Connor McClennon (Philadelphia); D Carson Lambos (Minnesota); G Gage Alexander (Anaheim)

Now, with Game 1 of their Eastern Conference final set for Friday at 7 p.m. at Wayne Fleming Arena, this seemingly inevitable pairing of heavyweight contenders has given way to a more important question: Who’s better?

Is it the Oil Kings, a more traditionally constructed playoff team complete with a punishing defence corps, high-scoring forwards and a first-round NHL draft pick in goal, or will it be the Ice, a slightly younger and smaller squad that has redefined how to play transition hockey at the major-junior level?

“Winnipeg is more of a skilled, high-paced Colorado-type team,” said Oil Kings head coach Brad Lauer after his club arrived in Winnipeg Wednesday night. “They’re very quick on transition. They want to push the pace… Their strength will be the pace and pushing it. It’s a different type of physicality.”


<p>JEAN LEVAC / OTTAWA CITIZEN FILES<p><p>"Winnipeg is more of a skilled, high-paced Colorado-type team," says Oil Kings head coach Brad Lauer.<p>

JEAN LEVAC / OTTAWA CITIZEN FILES

“Winnipeg is more of a skilled, high-paced Colorado-type team,” says Oil Kings head coach Brad Lauer.

The Ice scored 22 more goals than Edmonton and allowed 30 fewer during the regular season,

“They play a physical game but they skate so well,” said Ice head coach James Patrick of the Oil Kings. “… They are real strong on the forecheck and they finish. Their skating allows them to do that. But we have to play our game. I’ve never asked someone who’s not a physical player to run out of his way to try to act physical. There’s times when you have to finish your checks and there’s times when I expect everyone to.”

There is solid logic to prefer the Oil Kings in a seven-game series. Some of that is tied to the standard of officiating. Will the games be called more loosely, as we might expect in the post-season?


<p>RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES<p><p>"They play a physical game but they skate so well," said Ice head coach James Patrick of the Oil Kings.<p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

“They play a physical game but they skate so well,” said Ice head coach James Patrick of the Oil Kings.

“I think I think if the Oil Kings play hard and heavy and stay out of the penalty box, it’ll be tougher for Winnipeg,” one veteran NHL scout told the Free Press.

“I still think that advantage goes to Edmonton. They’re bigger on the back end. A little harder and a little more proven in goal, possibly. They’ve got a good mixture of skill and power.”

Both teams were contenders at the start of the season and made significant upgrades to their rosters during the regular season.

Two mid-season deals brought defensive cornerstones Kaiden Guhle and Luke Prokop to the Oil Kings, while Justin Sourdif was brought in at the trade deadline and now centres the club’s top line with Carter Souch and Dylan Guenther on the flanks.

“(Sourdif) brings us that faceoff guy we needed,” said Lauer. “Everyone thinks he brings a good offensive ability but he’s also got the responsibility on the other side of the puck, taking faceoffs and stuff like that. He’s complemented that line.”

Guhle, who was rested for the final 10 games of the regular season with an upper-body injury, has been rejuvenated upon returning to the lineup in the playoffs. He could be the most NHL-ready player on either roster.

“I think one of the biggest things that (Guhle, Sourdif and Prokop) brought to us as a team is their leadership, on and off the ice,” said Souch. “They’re guys with a lot of experience, not only in the Western League, but at world junior as well.”


<p>RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES<p><p>Jack Finley has evolved into the top faceoff man for the Winnipeg Ice.<p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Jack Finley has evolved into the top faceoff man for the Winnipeg Ice.

On the trade front, Winnipeg countered with the similarly key acquisitions of centre Jack Finley and defenceman Tanner Brown.

Finley has evolved into the club’s top faceoff man while centring a line with Owen Pederson and Connor McClennon — a trio that can score and perform shutdown defensive duties. Meanwhile, the versatile Brown can play in any situation.

Finley, a 19-year-old second-round pick of the Tampa Lightning, was acquired from the Spokane Chiefs in early December. He had extra time to find his niche with the Ice.

“I kind of had to find something that would help the team and I think as the season has gone on and the playoffs have gone on, we’ve kind of found that game,” said Finley. “I think for me, it’s being being solid, being heavy… Being big on faceoffs, and (penalty kill) and I feel like I’ve done a good job of that so far.”

While Finley’s line could be sent out to shadow Edmonton’s top unit of Souch-Sourdif-Guenther, it’s also possible its assignment will be the No. 2 trio comprised of towering Slovakian centre Jakub Demek between wingers Jake Neighbours and Josh Williams.


<p>DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES<p><p>A mid-season deal brought defensive cornerstone Luke Prokop to the Oil Kings.<p>

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

A mid-season deal brought defensive cornerstone Luke Prokop to the Oil Kings.

Edmonton and Winnipeg only met four times during the regular season (with the Oil Kings winning three games) but many of the players are extremely familiar with players on the other side.

For instance, Winnipeg’s Finley, McClennon and Brown were teammates of Edmonton’s Neighbours and Prokop when the five all played for the Pursuit of Excellent Prep U15 in Kelowna, B.C., in 2016-17.

Furthermore, Edmonton’s Souch played with Prokop and McClennon on the Northern Alberta X-Treme Prep in 2017-18. He was also a spring hockey teammate of Ice forward Jakin Smallwood between the ages of eight and 13. There is a long history.

“I know them well,” said Souch. “I know some of them probably a lot better than some of my teammates because when they were in Kootenay — Kootenay was in the division was with us when I was 16 and 17 years old — I used to play them six times a year.”

Finley plans to save the pleasantries with former teammates for the off-season.


<p>TIM SMITH / BRANDON SUN FILES<p><p>The Ice’s Daniel Hauser is a slightly undersized 18-year-old in the midst of a sensational sophomore season.<p>

TIM SMITH / BRANDON SUN FILES

The Ice’s Daniel Hauser is a slightly undersized 18-year-old in the midst of a sensational sophomore season.

“It’s always fun to play with people that you know but in playoffs that doesn’t matter,” said Finley. “We all put that aside and we’re not we’re not buddies, we’re enemies… It’s good that you know guys and maybe the tendencies of people that you’re playing, but once we get on the ice, there are no friends.”

It’s not inconceivable the series could come down to goaltending. The matchup pits the Oil Kings’ Sebastian Cossa, who at 6-6 who looks the part of a prototypical NHLer, and the Ice’s Daniel Hauser, a slightly undersized 18-year-old in the midst of a sensational sophomore season.

“Cossa’s not unbeatable but his best is pretty damn good and his off game is not bad either,” said the NHL scout. “I don’t know if the Hauser kid has that good a game but I commend him on how he’s played.”

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Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky