A year ago, the Portland Winterhawks and Edmonton Oil Kings put on quite a show in the Western Hockey League championship series. Five games were decided by a single goal in the seven-game series won by the Oil Kings.
The encore begins today, with Edmonton and Portland playing Game 1 of the best-of-7 WHL finals at the Rose Garden.
Many of the players are the same, though different stars figure to emerge for both teams as many of last season’s big guns have moved to professional hockey.
The top returning scorers from last season’s series are childhood pals Michael St. Croix and Brendan Leipsic. St. Croix had two goals and five assists in the 2012 finals, tying for the Edmonton points lead in that series. Leipsic had three goals and three assists in the 2012 finals, tied with Marcel Noebels for second on the Portland team behind Sven Bartschi.
Edmonton returns nine players who had at least one point in last season’s championship series. Portland returns eight. St. Croix has 10 goals and 12 assists in these playoffs to lead Edmonton. Ty Rattie, who had two goals and two assists in the 2012 finals, leads the league with 15 goals and 16 assists.
Edmonton coach Derek Laxdal is calling his team the underdog in this series. One reason is the play of Rattie and his linemates Leipsic and Nic Petan.
“That top line is probably the best line in junior hockey,” Laxdal said. “They’re tenacious. They play hard.”
The connections between the two teams run deep. For example, Leipsic and St. Croix are close friends who grew up together in Winnepeg.
“I remember him being 5-foot-nothing and hitting some pretty big guys growing up,” St. Croix said of Leipsic, who is now listed at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds and on Wednesday was recognized along with Petan for winning the WHL regular-season scoring title.
“There’s bragging rights back home for sure,” St. Croix said. “(Leipsic) is a great kid. He’s had a great season. Portland’s got some very high-end talent and so do we, so it’s going to be a pleasure to play.”
In terms of style, the teams are similar.
They’re a very fast paced team. They play with a lot of tempo. I think both teams have a similar style,” acting Winterhawks coach Travis Green said.
Perhaps most significant, both have proven goalies — the same pair that battled for the title last season. Edmonton’s Laurent Brossoit leads these WHL playoffs with a 1.58 goals-against average and has stopped 94.1 percent of the shots he’s seen. Portland’s Mac Carruth is allowing 1.62 goals per game and has a save percentage of 93.5.
“It’s going to be our toughest series, and rightfully so,” Green said. “When you get to the finals, it should be hard.”
• Portland is in the finals for the third consecutive year and 11th time overall. The Winterhawks have only won two of their previous 10 final series, in 1982 and 1998.
• Green was a teammate of Laxdal with the American Hockey League’s Capital District Islanders in 1990-91 (former Winterhawks player and coach Rich Kromm was also on that team).
• The Winterhawks are encouraging fans to wear white to the Friday and Saturday games. The team is hopeful of selling out both games — the upper level of the Rose Garden is closed off for Winterhawks games, making capacity similar to the 12,000-seat coliseum.
• The Winterhawks did not have any top picks in Thursday’s WHL bantam draft as a result of league penalties. The team’s first pick came in the sixth round when the Hawks took defenseman Carter Czaikowski from the Calgary Flames Bantam AAA team.