CALGARY - With their season hanging in the balance, Head Coach Derek Laxdal needed his veterans to step up and provide a spark.
At the morning press conference leading into a team meeting ahead of Wednesday's Game 4, the coach drew comparisons to the leadership provided by 20-year-olds Jordan Peddle and Rhett Rachinski, who were instrumental in helping the Oil Kings overcome adversity and capture the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL Champions last spring.
TJ Foster and Michael St. Croix took note.
The pair combined to record three goals and seven points, leading the Oil Kings to a 7-3 victory over the Calgary Hitmen in their most important game of the season Wednesday night at Scotiabank Saddledome.
"Our coaches demanded that from us at the morning skate," said St. Croix who, as a result of his four-point (one goal, three assist) night, has now collected 18 points in 13 games so far this post-season. "They brought in some of the older guys and said we needed to step up. We really wanted to tonight and we played pretty well as a team.
"It was a tough loss (Tuesday in Game 3). In the dressing room, we kept saying that we wanted to play for each other. 'Look at the guy beside you and play for him.' That's what we did tonight. We played for each other out there."
"We had a lot of energy in the room before the game and were ready to go," added Foster. "We were well prepared and it showed on the ice right off the bat. We got up early, let off a little bit in the second but stayed composed and capped it off."
The Eastern Conference Final shifts back to Edmonton with the Oil Kings having regained home ice advantage in what has become a Best-of-3. Game 5 is set for Friday night at Rexall Place.
Foster got the ball rolling with a goal 75 seconds in, silencing the 8,386 in attendance. Originally orchestrated by St. Croix's quick outlet pass to spring the veteran on a breakaway, No. 16 sent a slippery backhand shot past Chris Driedger to make it a 1-0 game.
"TJ took the team on his back and popped a couple quick ones," said St. Croix. "In the dressing room, we really knew we needed a good start and luckily we got it."
Forty seconds after the all-important icebreaker, Hitmen defenceman Spencer Humphries was called for slashing. On the ensuing faceoff, Colby Harmsworth was sent off for interference, giving the Oil Kings an extended two-man advantage.
Just 12 seconds into the 5-on-3, Foster cashed his second of the night as he launched a one-timer past the helpless netminder.
"There's something about the Saddledome," laughed Foster. "I love playing here. I felt good early and we got the opportunity put a couple away and we did, so that was good."
"TJ Foster's response was great tonight," added Laxdal. "He stepped up for the team and it's his last year and he obviously wants to go out with a win. I thought all our veterans really responded well. We challenged them with a couple things today and you've got to give them credit."
Oilers prospect Martin Gernat got in on the action at 5:33, stepping up on the rush, busting up the gut and wiring a slap shot past Driedger to make it a 3-0 game.
The onslaught wasn't over yet. Jumping up in the play a la Gernat, Ashton Sautner stepped into the high slot and roofed a slapper past Driedger, briefly spelling the end of his night as Mack Shields was called upon in relief.
Driedger returned to the game after only 20 seconds, however, but was replaced once more to start the second period.
Calgary got on the board with a questionable power-play goal at 12:16. While the horn was blasting and the fans were still celebrating, Henrik Samuelsson and Keegan Lowe got into a scuffle with the goal-scorer, Calder Brooks, and were each assessed minor penalties as a result.
With an entire two minutes to work with on the ensuing 5-on-3, Laurent Brossoit was heroic in preventing the Hitmen from getting any closer. With an open net to shoot for late in the power-play, Zane Jones was robbed as Brossoit slid post-to-post and denied with the winger with a sensational left pad save.
Jones had three good looks in the period, but couldn't solve Brossoit.
A pair of Oilers prospects engineered a greasy one to put the Oil Kings up 5-1 late in the period. After Mitch Moroz's initial attempt was thwarted as he cut to the net off the rush, Travis Ewanyk bulled his way to the crease and deposited the rebound upstairs on Driedger.
Brooks Macek was awarded a penalty shot after being hauled down by Dysin Mayo on a breakaway. Moving in with speed, Macek went shelf on Brossoit to pull the Hitmen within three at 7:56 of the second.
The Oil Kings responded in a hurry as Dylan Wruck got off the snide with a weight lifter after rifling a snap shot past Shields at 10:53. Oilers prospect David Musil picked up the lone assist as he led the rush to set it all up.
"It's been tough to be getting them lately," said Wruck, who hadn't scored since Mar. 12 vs. Saskatoon. "I've been hitting a bunch of posts and that kind of thing, so when you get one, it's a huge confidence boost.
"It was good to get one and help the boys."
Elliott Peterson got it right back after stepping into the slot and wiring a wrist shot past a screened Brossoit a little less than four minutes later.
St. Croix added some pageantry to the score by collecting his seventh of the post-season a little more than a minute into the third.
Admittedly so, the Oil Kings hadn't been at their best in Games 1, 2 and 3. While Laxdal wouldn't say the demon was slayed as a result of Wednesday's win, it was an improvement.
And if you're trending upward at this time of the year, that can only be a good thing.
"We were better than we were last night, let's put it that way," he laughed.
OIL SPILLS: Oil Kings captain Griffin Reinhart missed the game with a lower-body injury. He returned to Edmonton to be reevaluated earlier Wednesday morning. According to Laxdal, he will definitely be unavailable for Game 5 but could be ready to go for Game 6.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
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