Thursday, May 3, 2012

WHL Final Should Be a Classic

The WHL Final begins tonight at Rexall Place in Edmonton and has the makings of a fantastic series. The two teams are similar in some ways but the amount of sidebar stories have added to the intrigue of the match up as fans await to see how things play out. 

We'll discuss a variety of those things after the jump.

First and foremost, the Portland Winterhawks and the Edmonton Oil Kings are arguably the two best teams in the Western Hockey League this year. Edmonton was clearly the cream of the crop in the East as the only team to finish with more than 100 points on route to capturing the Scotty Munroe trophy as the league's regular season champs. 

Portland had the second most points in the Western conference but their 102 was one win shy of Tri-City's mark of 104 points and we saw what happened when the two teams met in the third round.

With Edmonton and Portland, fans will get to see the two most potent offences the WHL had in 2011-12. The Winterhawks led the way with 328 goals for, the most since Calgary had 330 during the 2008-09 season. The only other team to surpass the 300-goal plateau this year was the Oil Kings who struck for 310.

Portland ended the season with the #1 power play in the WHL (29.1). #2? Edmonton (27.6). As for the penalty kill units, the teams were ranked #2-3. 

The two powerhouse clubs have only lost a combined 4 games in the playoffs this year, three of those belong to Portland thanks to a 7-game series with Kamloops.

Edmonton has yet to lose at Rexall Place, Portland has just a single set back on home ice. 

The lone head-to-head match up this year was a lopsided 8-4 victory for the Oil Kings but both teams look much different today than they did back on October 21st. Edmonton added defenceman Cody Corbett shortly after that meeting, acquired Tyler Maxwell from Everett in November and then Henrik Samuelsson in January. 

Portland's roster is much different as well. The Winterhawks were without Sven Bartschi (CGY) on their early season Alberta trip because of injury. At the trade deadline they added German import Marcel Noebels (PHI) and Cam Reid (NSH). Coincidentally, Reid joined Portland after a deal with these very same Edmonton Oil Kings and a parting of ways with St. Cloud State where he was playing his sophomore season of NCAA hockey. 

The ties between the two organizations don't end with Reid. Edmonton head coach Derek Laxdal began his WHL playing career with the Winterhawks back in 1982-83 and played a role in Portland winning the Memorial Cup that May.

Photo: Andy Devlin
Although the teams only see each other once a year, some of the players have a history with one another already. Edmonton captain Mark Pysyk (BUF) and Portland's Joe Morrow (PGH) have been best friends since they were 6-year-olds and played on the same team year after year. They were both 1st round selections and both were taken 23rd overall; Pysyk in 2010 and Morrow in 2011. The pair have traded texts and phone calls right up to this week although you know that will stop now that the series is about to begin. 

20-year-olds Rhett Rachinski and Troy Rutkowski (COL) were teammates with Edmonton's South Side Athletic Club before their careers in the WHL. Oliver Gabriel and Layne Viveiros are also Edmonton products.

Key 2012 NHL Draft prospects Derrick Pouliot and Griffin Reinhart will be featured in the series. Both are expected to be taken in the first round. Add Oil Kings Ashton Sautner, Cody Corbett, Henrik Samuelsson, Mitch Moroz plus Portland's Brendan Leipsic, Taylor Leier and Josh Hanson and you have a lot of fodder for the scouting community. 

Californians Chase De Leo and Tyler Maxwell have exchanged messages via Twitter. Maxwell is the Edmonton player with the best first hand knowledge of the Winterhawks having spent most of his WHL career in the U.S. Division with Everett.  

Photo: Bryan Heim
Two of the top performers in the WHL playoffs this year will go head-to-head in the final but could one day be teammates at the next level. Forward Sven Bartschi (above) and goalie Laurent Brossoit are both prospects of the Calgary Flames, both having been selected in 2011. Add defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon to the mix and the Flames have a trio of players involved in this year's WHL final. 

Then you've got the fact that the Portland Winterhawks are the old Edmonton Oil Kings. The original Oil Kings relocated to Portland way back in 1976.

And those are just the stories we have before the series even begins!

On The Ice

The advantage in net definitely goes to the Oil Kings. That's not meant to discount Mac Carruth (CHI) but Laurent Brossoit has been unbelievable to this point and was an easy choice for MVP in the Eastern Conference portion of the playoffs. In 13 games Brossoit has held a .945 sv% and 1.62 GAA making Carruth's .920 sv% and 2.86 GAA look far less impressive than it actually is. 

Photo: John Allen
We've talked about it extensively on recent editions of The Pipeline Show - the defensive squads for both teams are extremely strong but in two very different ways. Portland's Joe Morrow and Derrick Pouliot (above) are 1-2 in playoff scoring among defencemen which comes as no surprise considering they were both ranked in the top 4 during the regular season. Troy Rutkowski chipped in 45 points as well proving that Portland's vaunted attack starts from their backend. 

The Oil Kings aren't exactly shooting blanks from the blueline though. Martin Gernat had 55 points this year, just 4 less than Pouliot, while Mark Pysyk and Griffin Reinhart contributed 38 and 36 points respectively. There is offence from Edmonton's rearguards too but it's not to the same degree that Portland has exhibited. 

That said, defensively it would be fair to suggest that Edmonton is probably more sound than Portland is.

On The Pipeline Show we've made the case that when it comes to the forward comparison, it's largely a case of Portland's high-end skill against Edmonton's depth.

Portland's top 4 scorers are Ty Rattie (STL), Sven Bartschi (CGY), Marcel Noebles (PHI) and Brad Ross (TOR). Together they have amassed an impressive 91 points in 15 games. To get to 91 points for Edmonton, you have to add up the totals for the top 9 players. Granted, Portland has played 2 more games than the Oil Kings (4 more than Henrik Samuelsson) but the point is clear - Portland's forward attack is lead by their top 4 guys.

On the flip side of the argument, the depth of the Oil Kings really becomes apparent when you flip the scoring list. Portland's ten least productive skaters have combined for 25 points. By comparison, Edmonton's ten least productive skaters in the playoffs have accumulated a whopping 43 points. 

Clearly, Edmonton is getting more well rounded offence than Portland is and that's the difference in the two teams. The job for Edmonton sounds simple; shutdown Portland's top line (Rattie, Bartschi and Noebles) but the expression 'easier said than done' is an understatement in this case. 

However, having held Moose Jaw leading scorer Quinton Howden pointless in round 3, Brandon's Mark Stone to a single point in round 2 and Max Reinhart goaless in round 1... the Oil Kings have shown that they can get that job done. The difference is that now they have to try and limit 4 guys, not just one.             

The department where Portland definitely has the advantage is in experience. The Winterhawks got this far last year before being upset by Kootenay in 5 games. That disappointment has fueled their fire this year and now they've for a second chance. That can't be underestimated in my opinion. 

Things to Watch 

Photo: Andy Devlin
- We had an interesting discussion during Tuesday's show about Kristians Pelss (above) and his newly signed contract. Dean made a point worth pondering when he asked why a NHL team would do this right now. What if, on some level, the contract was a great motivator for Pelss and that now that it's done, it has an adverse affect on him? Corey Graham countered that thought by suggesting not having been signed may have been a weight on his shoulders which now lifted, may lead to Pelss playing even better. It's an interesting debate and one worth considering as the Final unfolds. 

- Portland's Brad Ross (below, middle) is widely considered one of the most hated opposition players in the WHL. That may sound harsh but believe me because I've asked him, he takes that as a huge compliment. The agitator extraordinaire crosses the line too often for many that I've spoken with but he can't afford to do that in this series. Edmonton has faced Max Reinahrt, Darian Dziurzynski and Cody Beach on their way to the final and none of those guys were able to unsettle the Oil Kings all that much.

Photo: Andy Devlin
- Who from Edmonton will get the assignment of dealing with a guy like Ross? Probably 6'2, 210 lb Mitch Moroz
- The attendance in Portland for their series clinching game over Tri-City was 10947. The top gate thus far in Edmonton's run to the final was in game 1 of round 1 against Kootenay: 8939. With a week to sell tickets for the final round, would it be unreasonable to think that Edmonton hockey fans should outnumber their Portland counterparts?  

No comments: