For the first time since 2014, the Edmonton Oil Kings are off to the WHL’s Eastern Conference Final. That year, the team was led by the likes of Henrik Samuelsson, Griffin Reinhart, Curtis Lazar, Edgars Kulda, and Tristan Jarry, amongst others. That was a team who was built to win a title that season and they did, marching all the way to a Memorial Cup win. After their run, the team would lose a large chunk of their core and go into a rebuild cycle.
Things aren’t the same this year. At the beginning of this season, a playoff appearance would have likely been enough to inject some optimism into the organization. As the year went on, it was clear that this group was much better than just a wild card team.
Their core isn’t ageing either. Yes, they have a pair of 20-year-olds in Quinn Benjafield and Vince Loschiavo along with 19-year-olds Trey Fix-Wolansky and Conner McDonald who have all been incredible. But they’ve surrounded those players with a solid young core that includes draft-eligible defenseman Matt Robertson, import forward Vlad Alistrov, 17-year-old Josh Williams, and 16-year-old star in the making Jake Neighbours.
On the surface, their series against the Calgary Hitmen was handled rather easily given the fact they swept the best-of-seven and capped it off with a 6-0 win on Wednesday night. But the series could have been vastly different had it not been for a momentum-changing final minute of game one.
With five minutes to go in the series opener, the Oil Kings trailed the Hitmen 2-0. Things changed when Parker Gavlas fired home just his third career WHL goal (regular season and playoffs combined) to make it a one-goal game. That goal set the stage for a wild finish that eventually saw rookie forward Jake Neighbours jump over the boards, streak into the slot, and chip home the game-tying goal with just 11 seconds remaining.
That pushed the game to overtime where Neighbours capped off his incredible night by jamming home the overtime winner.
“He’s a 16-year-old who plays like he’s 20,” said Parker Gavlas after the game, giving a glowing review of the Oil Kings rookie forward.
He’s an absolute force and isn’t afraid to mix it up physically which is a big reason why I think we’ve seen him become more and more effective as the playoffs have rolled on. I don’t expect that to change heading into round three.
The next night, the Oil Kings brought what I felt was a much more dominant effort. They outshot the Hitmen 39-27 and honestly had all four lines rolling and engaged in the offensive zone. That’s not something I felt they had in game one. They went on to take game two by a score of 4-1, getting goals from four different players.
Game three was an absolute backbreaker from a Hitmen perspective. Jack McNaughton was tremendous through 60 minutes, only allowing one goal on 28 shots. The Hitmen brought a lot of pressure and when it appeared that Dylan Myskiw was unbeatable, they finally beat him with just 1:07 remaining in the game.
That forced overtime but for the second time in the series, the Oil Kings needed under five minutes to end the game. Just 2:46 into the extra frame, Wyatt McLeod let go of a point shot that appeared rather harmless but somehow slipped through McNaughton.
That gave the Oil Kings a 3-0 series lead and there were no more questions about whether or not Edmonton would win the series, it was simply a matter of how much longer it would take them.
They would finish the job rather unceremoniously with a 6-0 win in game four. They scored early and often. Scott Atkinson and Quinn Benjafield got things started with a pair of first period goals, they would add on three more in the second period courtesy of Jake Neighbours, Vince Loschiavo, and Wyatt McLeod. Mid-season acquisition Andrew Fyten pounded the final nail into the Hitmen’s coffin in the third period.
The Oil Kings outscored Calgary 15-4 and got goals from 11 different skaters. The depth of this team made a massive difference.
Don’t sleep on the impact Dylan Myskiw made either. When a series ends in a quick sweep, it can be easy to forget the performance of a goaltender but the Oil Kings veteran stopper turned aside 98 of the 102 shots he faced over the course of the four games.
In round one, he lost the crease for a few games and I had heard from people within the organization that they were planning to split the second round series between Myskiw and the younger Todd Scott. That never happened and I would be surprised if we see Scott again in the playoffs. This appears to be Dylan Myskiw’s crease.
Now, the Oil Kings need to wait. The Prince Albert Raiders and Saskatoon Blades are currently tied at two in their best-of-seven series which means it will go at least six games. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a game seven.
That means more rest for the Oil Kings, which is always welcomed this time of year. What we do know is that over the next seven to ten days, the team will hit the road and head somewhere in Saskatchewan for the Eastern Conference Final.