LONDON — Sunday morning, about five hours before his Edmonton Oil Kings was going to head to the Budweiser Gardens for the MasterCard Memorial Cup final, Derek Laxdal sounded like a coach who was quietly confident in a team that few gave much of a chance.
“We saw some things looking back at the game and we’ll make some adjustments,” he said.
Laxdal was referring to a game that should have been hard to watch: Guelph’s 5-2 win over the Oil Kings in the opening round. The Ontario Hockey League champions had fairly rolled through the round-robin schedule, outscoring opponents 18-7. The Storm looked to be completely on form. In fact, they looked to be peaking at a championship played pretty much in their backyard, just down the 401.
Laxdal must have seen something, the proof being Edmonton’s 6-3 upset of Guelph in the championship game.
Hours before you couldn’t be blamed if you didn’t buy his optimism. Coaches have been known to speak with forked tongues or talk themselves into a sincere belief in lost causes.
One or the other seemed to be the case with Laxdal, especially when he talked about strategy in broad strokes. He hit home on three points:
One: Laxdal said he didn’t envision his team trying to slow down the Storm, forwards peeling back and clogging the neutral zone in a 1-1-3 set-up.
Two: He was convinced that the Oil Kings could skate with Guelph across 60 up-tempo minutes.
Three: He said his team could be sharper on its power play, especially if a five-on-three advantage came up.
On two other points, away from Xs and Os, Laxdal said he had reason for hope.
One: He suggested that the Oil Kings had been off their game earlier in the tournament because they were skating into an unfamiliar setting.
Two: He believed his players could raise their game if they were able to grab a lead. “We don’t want to chase the game against Guelph,” he said.
The coach didn’t completely discount fatigue as a possible factor—Edmonton was stretched to the limit in a semi-final victory over Val d’Or in triple overtime Saturday night. “When I went in the dressing room before the third overtime, there were five [players] laying on the floor of the room,” he said. “They gave it everything they had. Still, they’ve had a chance to recover. They’ll be ready.”
What sounded like whistling in the dark proved to be dead-on-the-mark prophesy. Not that it looked that way early in the championship game.
Two shifts in, Rob Fabbri bore down on the Edmonton goal and beat Oil Kings netminder Tristan Jarry through a crowd in front of the net. During the first five minutes, the Storm went on the power play twice, Edmonton players taking bad penalties deep in the Guelph zone. It looked bleak for the Western Hockey League champs.
But after the second penalty kill, the game turned, and not gradually. From that point through to the first intermission the Oil Kings out-shot the Storm 19-6. Though they traded goals, the ostensible home team went to the dressing room with a 2-1 lead thanks to a late marker by Stephen Pierog, you sensed that Laxdal had a clear read of the match-up through the video and he had convinced his team of their chances if no one else.
As the coach had called it, the Oil Kings’ power play brought them back in the game, the first goal coming nine minutes in on a shot from the point by Cody Corbett as a five-on-three advantage wound down.
The big names, Griffin Reinhart or Curtis Lazar, both NHL first-rounders, led the team in their own way but didn’t factor in the scoring. Reinhart played his best game of the tournament, living up to his rep as the Dub’s best shutdown defenceman. And when Lazar carried the puck through the neutral zone his speed put the Storm defenders on their heels and had them giving up big, fat cushions.
The damage done in the second period was by lesser names: Tyler Robertson who tied the game 2-2 on the third shift; Edgars Kulda added another power-play goal for Edmonton, the go-ahead score six minutes later. And then Mitchell Moroz made it 4-2 with six minutes to go before the second intermission.
The third period wasn’t a formality, but even when Zack Mitchell brought Guelph within a goal about four minutes in, it never felt like Edmonton was going to let the game get away on them. Henrik Samuelsson, Ulf’s son and a first-round draft pick of Phoenix in 2012, scored a pair, the second into an empty net to complete the scoring.
Laxdal was right on every point. The Storm physically pounded opponents throughout the post-season but they couldn’t hit what they couldn’t catch up to. If the Oil Kings had tried to slow the game down, they would have been sitting in Guelph’s crosshairs. Instead, Edmonton never allowed the OHL champs to establish a forecheck on a chip and chase. And the Oil Kings’ power play wasn’t just better as Laxdal hoped, but in fact perfect: two for two.
Laxdal knew how his team had a chance. He’d never claim that he knew they’d win it. I wish I had just handed him my notebook Sunday morning, he could have written this story for me.