While the team they share an arena with continues to flounder, the Edmonton Oil Kings continue to play some very good hockey. It’s becoming the norm for the cities local WHL team. While the results over the past week weren’t dominant, I was still very impressed with the Oil Kings recent four-game stretch.
They embarked on their final significant road trip of the season, which saw them play three games in three nights, starting on Wednesday night in Brandon.
Everyone I heard from following the teams return home agreed that they deserved a better fate against the Wheat Kings. They lost the game 5-2 despite outshooting Brandon 38-22 and leading the game heading into the third period.
The teams’ powerplay has slowly become a point of concern for me (going 2/20 over the last six games) and it wasn’t good enough against Brandon. Not only did they finish the night 0/3, but they also had a chance to extend their lead with an early powerplay opportunity in the third period and it resulted in a shorthanded goal against. That was the first of four goals for the Wheat Kings in the final frame and it cost Edmonton the game.
After starting the trip with a third-period collapse, they rebounded with a surge in the final frame the next night against Moose Jaw. After falling down 2-0 after 40 minutes, their top line took over the game, combing for six points. Vince Loschiavo scored twice with Trey Fix-Wolansky and Quinn Benjafield assisting on both. The Oil Kings would hold on for a 3-2 win.
They concluded the trip in Regina against a rather weak Pats team. It was clear that they were in the final of a three-in-three and it didn’t help that they got hit pretty hard with the flu bug as well. Both Fix-Wolansky and Benjafield were forced to miss this game. They still outshot the Pats, but they didn’t deserve to win this one.
The loss knocked their record to 1-2-0-0 on the trip. Despite dropping two games, the Oil Kings still held the top spot in the Central Division when the puck dropped on their Family Day matchup against the Medicine Hat Tigers.
It’s not very often that you’ll see a team win a game 5-0 and say that their goalie stole one for them, but that’s what happened Monday afternoon. The Oil Kings jumped out to a 3-0 lead just 4:14 into the opening frame, but from that point forward, the Tigers were clearly the better team.
“Our start was tremendous, to get three quick ones was nice to see. After that, we didn’t have a lot of energy, we didn’t play the way we wanted to, but we found a way” said Head Coach Brad Lauer.
Veteran goaltender Dylan Myskiw was the difference tonight, stopping all 38 shots he faced to earn his first career WHL shutout.
“I wanted to get it off my back and I was hoping it would be sometime soon,” said a smiling Myskiw, reflecting on the milestone.
The team welcomed forward Jake Neighbours back to the lineup Friday in Regina and he would return to the scoresheet in the game against Medicine Hat, assisting on Andrew Fyten’s first-period marker. He missed a month with an upper-body injury and in his first game back, was suspended for four games. He’s really only played two full games since December 30th.
“It sucked being out, you don’t like watching games. It feels good to be back in there and getting back in the swing of things feels good,” said Neighbours after the game against the Tigers.
The rookie forward is one of my favourite Oil Kings to watch and his intense, physical style of play should only become more impactful as the team gets close to the playoffs.
“There’s a little bit of fatigue, you’re not used to the pace of a game. I felt pretty good in Regina and I’ve been working on my cardio, trying to stay in shape. I felt good today,” added Neighbours.
They’ll need all hands on deck as they head into their final ten games of the season. The team will play eight of their final ten against division opponents, most of which are still within spitting distance of the club for the top spot in the Central.
“This is great for our team. We’re going to be playing in our division for the next little while and every game is going to be a playoff game,” said Brad Lauer.
“We have a group of guys that haven’t been in the playoffs for a while now. These next ten games will be like playoff hockey so hopefully that prepares us and gets us to understand what it’s going to be like when we do get to the playoffs,” he added.
The intensity will no doubt be cranked up, but one thing that will benefit the Oil Kings is the layout of their final stretch of games.
They’ll play six of their final ten games on home ice and their final four road games are all single trips to either Red Deer or Calgary. The players won’t spend more than a day away from home from now until the playoffs.
“We were on the road lots in the first half and in the second half we’ve been home a little more. It’ll be good to stay at home and show our fans something so we can build a good playoff atmosphere,” commented Neighbours.
While the players I talked to were all excited for the relaxed travel schedule, which will result in added time at home, the team’s Head Coach had a different take.
“Yes and no,” said Lauer when asked about the added time at home. “Sometimes too close to home isn’t great either because you get too much time of your hands. The biggest thing for these next ten games, whether you’re at home or on the road is how you play the games.”
The team will take to the ice at Rogers Place on Friday night when they host the Red Deer Rebels. The race for top spot in the division will likely stay tight right up until the final few days of the regular season, but for now, the Oil Kings are two points up on the second place Lethbridge Hurricanes, who are the only Central Division team that they won’t play for the remainder of the season.
Their fate is completely in their own hands, I’m both intrigued and excited to see how this young team handles the pressure of the chase for the Central Division title.