EDMONTON - Heading into Game 7 of the Western Hockey League's Eastern Conference Championship, the Edmonton Oil Kings can't help but draw on past experience.
Just last spring in a heated battle for the WHL Championship, the Portland Winterhawks avoided elimination by eking out a 3-2 win over the Oil Kings in Game 6, forcing a seventh and deciding game the very next night at Rexall Place in Edmonton.
In Game 7, one of sports' greatest spectacles, the Oil Kings built up a 4-0 lead and were eventually crowned champions by virtue of a 4-1 win in one of their complete games of the post-season.
They're looking to repeat that performance tonight (7:00p.m. at Rexall Place).
"It always helps when you have experience in a situation like this," said forward TJ Foster, 20, who picked up a goal and an assist that night. "We didn't have a whole lot of time to think about the loss because Game 7 was the next day, but it's still a similar situation to what we're going through now. We had a chance to end the series, we couldn't, and now we have one more chance to wrap up the series.
"You never want to have doubt in your mind when you're a high-level athlete. You always want to think positively, so that's what we're doing right now."
Nineteen-year-old Michael St. Croix -- the Oil Kings' leading scorer in the post-season with eight goals and 20 points in 15 games -- also tallied that night vs. Portland. As one of the leaders likely in his last few weeks as an Oil King, he would like nothing more than to bring his best and emerge heroic once again.
"We've done it in the past and we have the experience (Calgary) doesn't," said St. Croix. "But in hockey, anything can happen so we're not too caught up in what happened last year, but it certainly factors in to how we approach this game. This series has been a roller coaster to say the least. The emotions have been everywhere. The team that's going to balance their emotions and stick to the game plan the best will probably come out victorious. We've got to bottle up our emotions here and play together.
"You've got to step up at certain times, especially as a leader. I'm looked upon to provide a spark for the team, so I hope to step up in a big way tonight. I'm not the only one, though. It's a team game and we have a bunch of guys raring to go."
Building up 2-0 and 3-1 leads in Game 6 Sunday at Scotiabank Saddledome, the Oil Kings had the Hitmen on the brink of elimination. Three unanswered goals by Brooks Macek (2) and Brady Brassart brought the Hitmen back to life, ultimately forcing Game 7 with an emotional come-from-behind win in overtime.
As a result, 'nervous energy' would be the best way to describe the atmosphere at the morning skate. And that's a good thing. Knowing they have plenty left in the tank, they're not resting on their laurels as the team that was ‘expected' to win easily.
"Absolutely," said Foster when asked if the Oil Kings have more to give. "We put ourselves in an excellent position last game, but then we let off a lot. You can't do that against a team that's playing desperation hockey like Calgary was.
"I had a chance to put us up 3-0 in the second period and missed the open net (Hitmen netminder Chris Driedger dove across and robbed the veteran with the backside of his paddle). That save right there changed the whole dynamic of the game. They came down and scored two shifts later. We're going to have to capitalize on our opportunities tonight, because they don't come around a lot in a tight series like this. We left some on the table the other night that we're not going to in this one."
"They have a very structured team," added St. Croix, who recorded an assist in the loss. "Driedger made some huge saves last game to keep them in it and they got some timely scoring, too. We expected them to be this good and we've expected everything that they brought in Game 6, but it was our execution that let us down at the most critical points in the game."
Look no further than the power-play.
Throughout the regular season the Oil Kings boasted the League's top power-plays with an incredible 28.6 percent success rate, but it's been more of a power-outage than anything else in the Eastern Conference Final. The Hitmen scored twice on the man-advantage Sunday night, while the Oil Kings went 0-for-5, contributing to a stretch of 16 straight opportunities that have passed without a goal.
A considerable amount of time was spent working on it at the morning skate.
"We've changed our power-play units up a bit," said St. Croix. "We're going to see if something else will work. Calgary is very aggressive on the penalty kill and that's been a challenge to work around. It's causing us to think a little too much out there, which is never good. We need to be instinctive with our decision-making so we're getting pucks and bodies to the net as quickly as possible. I think we've been getting a little bit too cute in recent games, but that has to stop.
"In order to win tonight our power-play is going to have to be good."
That and controlling their emotions.
The Oil Kings have done well to this point in that respect -- but in a do-or-die, winner-take-all circumstance with a boisterous crowd behind them, it's critical to stay on an even keel.
"We've got to bottle our emotions and play together like we have all year," said St. Croix. "We played all season for the opportunity to win on home ice. With our loud home crowd behind us, we're going to have to bring our ‘A' game.
"It doesn't get any bigger than Game 7. It's going to be a lot of fun."
OIL SPILLS: Trevor Cheek is a game-time decision after playing only one shift in Game 6. If he can't go, defenceman Stephen Shmoorkoff will draw into the lineup. ... Curtis Lazar was struck in the face by an errant puck at the morning skate. While the draft-eligible sniper lost a few chicklets and will almost certainly require some additional dental work prior to puck drop, he will play.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick
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