EDMONTON - At the most critical point in the post-season, the Edmonton Oil Kings have found their groove.
After rattling off consecutive wins over the Calgary Hitmen in Games 4 and 5 of the Eastern Conference Championship, the club can advance to face to the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL Final with a win Sunday at Scotiabank Saddledome.
"When we lost Game 1 in overtime, we knew we had to get better," said acting captain Keegan Lowe Saturday morning at Rexall Place. "We ran away with the second one a little bit at the end, but for the most part it was another one-goal game throughout.
"From there, we've progressed.
"We had that bad second period (allowing four goals on 11 shots) in Game 3 in Calgary, but Game 4 was a solid one and Game 5 was our best effort yet."
Since that horrid second period that led to a 5-2 loss this past Tuesday, the Oil Kings have outscored (13-4) and outshot (92-56) their opponent, resulting in consecutive victories and a 3-2 series lead, sending the Battle of Alberta back to Calgary with the Hitmen on the brink of elimination.
"Reality kicked in that it wasn't going to be easy," said Lowe. "As much as we'd like to, we can't sweep every round and can't expect to win them so easily, either, because every team in this league is a good one. The teams are all so equally matched that we have to work for every inch. We can't expect that we're supposed to be (in the final) because of who we are. It's always a lot harder than you think it is and we have to work for it."
"There are a couple factors that have played into our last couple games that we've liked," added Head Coach Derek Laxdal. "It's always your goal to be playing your best as the series goes along, and that's something we did earlier in the playoffs against Kootenay and Medicine Hat. It's the same formula we're working with right now.
"If you win or lose, you really have to be ready to expect a pushback from both teams. Tomorrow night we have to be ready to take another step in our game. I thought we played very well in Games 4 and 5 and Game 6 has to be our best game yet, plain and simple."
Also in action Friday night, the Winterhawks defeated the Kamloops Blazers and will be making their third straight appearance in the WHL Final. Last year's Championship Series went all the way to Game 7 was an deemed by many as one of the all-time best series' in WHL history. An Edmonton-Portland rematch would be quite a sight, but there's business to be taken care of and the Oil Kings know the Hitmen won't lie down.
Still, as Lowe explains, there's added incentive in wrapping up the series as soon as possible.
"We've got to get down to business and we want to take care of it," he said. "We have two chances to do it and if we don't do it tomorrow, we still have another chance, but we have it -- it's in our cards to win it tomorrow and we want to put this series behind us as fast as we can.
"If we can take it tomorrow, we'd get an extra couple days of rest heading into the next round. But we're solely focused on this series right now and making sure we're not looking past it. Calgary is a very good team and we certainly don't take them lightly.
"It's going to be a challenge tomorrow night. We're going to do our best, but as long as we get it done, that's all we need."
Veteran goaltender Chris Driedger has been exceptional for the Hitmen this series and will surely be eying a rebound effort in front of the hometown crowd. The 19-year-old has posted a 2.30 goals-against average and .930 save percentage to this point in the post-season, and has often been the difference-maker.
As a result, the road to the Ed Chynoweth Cup has been considerably more difficult this season than it was last year.
"Moose Jaw had a hell of a hockey club last year," said Laxdal, "but they had a very young and inexperienced goaltender. This year, Driedger has been outstanding in this series for Calgary, so we're facing a very good team with an excellent, veteran goaltender.
"Our focus is on coming up with ways to get to him. ‘How do we get to this good goalie?' We're not trying to do anything too drastic but, as with any good goaltender, you have to send bodies to the net, get shots there and create some intensity around the crease."
That's exactly what the Oil Kings did in Game 5, which led to a three-goal outburst in the opening 20, capped by one of the prettiest goals of the season.
Boasting a slew of exciting young players, it shouldn't come as a surprise. But it sure was special.
Dylan Wruck sent a 60-foot, cross-seam pass across to a pinching Alex Sautner at the near faceoff circle. One-touching it back across an equal distance, the return feed connected with Oilers prospect Travis Ewanyk, who roofed a shot over Driedger from the sharpest of angles.
"Playing on the team that we play on, we have a lot of skilled players and we've seen a lot of pretty goals, but that was a pretty one," said Lowe. "With Trav soaring through the air, he looked a little bit like Bobby Orr.
"But don't tell him that. We don't want that going to his head."
"That was the kind of effort that wins you hockey games," added Laxdal. "It was a special play all around. You've got to give Travis credit for coming out of the corner, beating the defenceman to the net and keeping his stick on the ice. We all felt the energy from that one on the bench, and it certainly was a big goal to help us win the game and get up in the series.
"We've got a one-game lead in the series now, so we've got to continue to work like that, bring our best and try to close this thing out tomorrow night."
Puck drop is at 4:00p.m. Sunday at Scotiabank Saddledome.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
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