This is the 10th trip to the WHL finals since the Winterhawks arrived in Portland for the 1976-77 season — moving from Edmonton where it was the original Oil Kings franchise dating to 1950. Portland is seeking its third league title and its first since 1998 when it swept Brandon and went on to win the Memorial Cup tournament.
For Portland defenseman Joe Morrow, playing Edmonton means a homecoming. He hails from Sherwood Park, just east of the city, and said he will have plenty of family and friends in the stands.
He will also have friends on the other bench, including close friend Mark Pysyt. He said they have not kept in touch during the hectic playoff season.
The ties between the franchises go back a long way. This is the third version of the Oil Kings in the WHL. The first one pre-dated the league and was in Edmonton until Brian Shaw and Ken Hodge bought the team and moved it to Portland for the 1976-77 season. Also, Oil Kings' head coach Derek Laxdal was a 16-yeaar-old who played in 39 games for the 1983 Winterhawks championship team. He was traded away following that season.
In another fun twist, Cam Reid joined Portland after the Winterhawks acquired the center's rights by trading a draft pick to the Oil Kings in January. Reid left St. Cloud (Minn.) State to join the Winterhawks.
The British Columbia native said he never considered playing for the Oil Kings because he was always set on playing NCAA hockey, so he has no ties to the franchise.
"I only had a few conversations with them when I was younger," Reid said. "Still, it's very exciting to be playing against them."
Note: The Winterhawks did not win any WHL awards this season. Tri-City's Brendan Shinnimin was named the WHL player of the year. Shinnimin had 58 goals and 76 assists for 134 points along with a plus-45 rating in 69 regular-season games.
The value of experience will be tested beginning today as the Portland Winterhawks and Edmonton Oil Kings battle for the Western Hockey League championship.
Perhaps the only measurable difference between the teams is Portland’s lengthy playoff résumé, which includes last season’s WHL Finals loss.
The Winterhawks and Oil Kings both have hot, confident goalies.
Both teams have depth on offense -- though Portland’s top line of Marcel Noebels, Ty Rattie and Sven Bartschi is the most dominant attacking threesome in the league by a longshot. Both believe they have top-flight defensemen.
But in terms of postseason games played, a significant edge goes to Portland.
The Winterhawks have 11 players on this team who played meaningful roles during the 2011 playoff run to the league finals, where they lost in five games to the Kootenay Ice. This is the first deep playoff run for an Edmonton franchise that has been building toward this since joining the WHL in 2007-08.
After struggling in the championship series last year, the returning Winterhawks are approaching this opportunity with a sharper focus.
“The experience will help a lot,” Winterhawks defenseman Joe Morrow said. “We understand that we were that close last year and we could have done it, but we just ran out of power and ran out of steam. This year the guys are fit and experienced to make this long of a run. We have a lot more energy and competitiveness in our game.”
Mike Johnston, the Winterhawks’ head coach and general manager, said he senses less giddiness about winning the WHL Western Conference title this time around.
“Maybe last year there was a lot excitement that carried over (into the finals),” Johnston said. “I sense now, it’s a lot more about business for our group. They know that we have one more step to go to get to the Memorial Cup.”
The experience factor goes beyond last season’s appearance in the finals.
Portland has nine 19-year-olds on the roster, seven who play regularly. Edmonton has four. Both teams have the maximum three 20-year-olds.
That might help physically in certain matchups. But the real edge is leadership and not taking the opportunity for granted, according to Morrow, one of Portland’s 19-year-olds.
“It’s been a long run and we know how to handle it this year. No distractions. Just a bunch of guys going out there to play hockey and to try to have fun,” Morrow said. “It should be a good series. Hopefully we can bring it back to Portland with a win or two and go from there.”
Portland will be hoping top scorers Ty Rattie (17 goals, 12 assists in the playoffs) and Sven Bartschi (seven goals, 18 assists) continue their scortching postseason pace. Edmonton will hope that goalie Laurent Brossiot continues to dominate. The 18-year-old carries a playoff-best 94.5 save percentage.
Portland goalie Mac Carruth, 19, has stopped 92 percent of the shots he has seen in these playoffs, his third as the team’s top netminder. This season, Carruth has played in two more playoff games than Brossiot, and faced 151 more shots.
Carruth, who said he did not play well in the 8-4 loss at Edmonton in October -- the only game between the teams this season -- said he is looking forward to the challenge presented by an Edmonton team with four solid attacking lines.
I’m looking forward to stopping that first puck up there,” Carruth said.
“Last year I think we were just excited to be here,” Carruth said about getting a second shot at the WHL finals. “This year, I don’t think we’re going to be happy until we’ve got rings on our fingers in the summer, so we’ll keep working hard.”