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WHL Playoffs: (1) Edmonton Oil Kings vs. (8) Kootenay Ice
The Edmonton Oil Kings finished the regular season atop the WHL standings, and they'll get to start their climb against the defending WHL champions, the Kootenay Ice.
The first-seeded team in the Eastern Conference also topped the WHL's regular season standings, but they've still had to fight for respect. In the CHL's final rankings, the Oil Kings were ranked fourth, below the WHL's Tri-City Americans at number two. They've also spent most of the season in the shadow of The Dub's tow other powerhouses, the Portland Winterhawks and the Kamloops Blazers.
That said, the Oil Kings are definitely for real, and they've proven it all season long.
Edmonton also comes into the playoffs as the league's hottest team, riding an 11-game win streak. In a competitive Eastern Conference, the Oil Kings are second in total offense, power play, total defense, and penalty killing.
Michael St. Croix leads them in scoring with 105 points, while Dylan Wruck (80 points), T.J. Foster (75 points), and Tyler Maxwell (71 points) were all point-per-game players.
Simply put, the Oil Kings are a juggernaut.
Last year, the Ice rode a fourth-place regular season finish to a WHL Championship. This year, in eighth, their potential climb starts out a lot harder against the league's best team.
The Ice have a lot of talent, led by brothers Sam and Max Reinhart, and they're certainly capable of stealing a game or two. It's also important to note that the Ice – with 82 points – only finished one point back of fifth place. There's also a large different between eighth in the East and eighth in the West. Kootenay finished 28 points ahead of their Western Conference counterparts, the Everett Silvertips,
In short, this team probably deserved a better fate than it will get in Round 1. Of course, it didn't help that the Ice went 0-3-2-0 in their last five games to close out the regular season.
Players to Watch:
Sam and Max Reinhart (Kootenay) and Griffin Reinhart (Edmonton)
This is the WHL's equivalent of an all-Staal NHL series. While Edmonton swept the season series (6-0-0), Max and Sam were Kootenay's best player in those games, registering seven and four points, respectively.
On the other Griffin Reinhart has had a strong third season with Edmonton, with 36 points and a +23.
Kootenay will rely more on their Reinharts than Edmonton will on Griffin, but it should be entertaining to watch.
As was said above, the Ice could make the case they deserved a better seeding... but, that's not the reality. Instead, they'll take their 2011 Memorial Cup experience into Edmonton against the buzzsaw that is the Oil Kings and their 11-game winning streak.
Kootenay might steal one, or two, but a series victory may be completely out of reach.
Edmonton in five.
Game 1: Kootenay at Edmonton, Friday March 23 (6 p.m. PST)
Game 2: Kootenay at Edmonton, Sunday, March 25 (4 p.m. PST)
Game 3: Edmonton at Kootenay, Wednesday, March 28 (6 p.m. PST)
Game 4: Edmonton at Kootenay, Thursday, March 29 (6 p.m. PST)
*Game 5: Kootenay at Edmonton, Sunday, April 1 (6 p.m. PST)
*Game 6: Edmonton at Kootenay, Tuesday, April 3 (6 p.m. PST)
*Game 7: Kootenay at Edmonton, Wednesday, April 4 (6 p.m. PST)
More Eastern Conference previews...