The Portland Winterhawks and Edmonton Oil Kings continue to peak.
Major junior hockey is cyclical as players are scouted, drafted, developed and graduated within a four-year span. It’s difficult to sustain a powerhouse team more than two years before having to rebuild. But the Winterhawks and Oil Kings will meet in the Western Hockey League championship series for a third straight year. The best-of-seven series opens Saturday at the Moda Center in Oregon.
The Winterhawks are the defending champions having beaten the Oil Kings in six games in 2013. The Oil Kings downed Portland in seven games to take the Ed Chynoweth Trophy in 2012.
A hockey coincidence kicks in with this third consecutive meeting between the same two clubs. The last and only time that happened was from 1969 to 1971 when a previous incarnation of the Edmonton Oil Kings thrice faced the Flin Flon Bombers. That Oil Kings franchise left Edmonton and became the Portland Winter Hawks in 1976.
Another historical tidbit is Derek Laxdal, the head coach of the current Oil Kings, played his rookie season with the Winterhawks in 1982-83 and won a Memorial Cup with them.
Fun facts aside, each team has about a dozen players who experienced at least one of the previous two championship series and half a dozen who played in both.
“They know how to play in the big situations and so do we,” Winterhawks defenceman Derrick Pouliot says. “Playoff experience is huge the further in you get. It’s going to help out a lot for both sides.”
Divisional alignments limit the Oil Kings and Winterhawks to one regular-season meeting. Portland played at Rexall Place on Dec. 6 and lost 5-4 in a shootout to the host club.
Pouliot, the league’s defenceman of the year and a Pittsburgh Penguins prospect, will graduate from the WHL never knowing what it’s like to not play in the championship series.
The Winterhawks will actually appear in their fourth straight WHL final, having lost to the Kootenay Ice back in 2011. The only other teams to play in four straight were the aforementioned Oil Kings (1969-72) and the New Westminster Bruins (1975-78).
“It’s pretty special,” Pouliot says. “For myself, I’ve been there four years straight and three of them against Edmonton. It’s very unusual, but it’s exciting too.”
The WHL winner advances to the Memorial Cup in London, Ont., to join the Ontario and Quebec league champions and the host Knights in the tournament May 16-25. The Winterhawks lost 6-4 to the Halifax Mooseheads in last year’s Memorial Cup final.