MEDICINE HAT – The Central Division-leading Edmonton Oil Kings waltzed into Co-Op Place Saturday evening and pretty much clinched first place with a 4-1 victory over the Medicine Hat Tigers.
It was the second time in three nights and fourth time this irregular season the Oil Kings have beaten the Tigers. The frontrunners from the Alberta capital have an eight-point lead on second place Medicine Hat.
“They have a couple of guys that will probably play in the NHL next year,” said Tigers head coach Willie Desjardins when asked why the Oil Kings are tough to play against. “And they play with really good structure.”
Edmonton opened the scoring at the 2:59 mark when former Tigers forward Josh Williams created a turnover behind the Medicine Hat goal line. Kaid Oliver dished out front to Jake Neighbours, who was stoned by Garin Bjorklund, but the rebound dribbled to Oliver for the easy tap in.
The Oil Kings took a 2-0 at 16:32 on a bit of pure class by Neighbours. The St. Louis Blues prospect carried the puck into the slot where a Tigers defender’s stick check got the puck airborne. Neighbours batted the puck twice, once to control it and the second time to swipe it past Bjorklund. This tally will most certainly be available for viewing as a Western Hockey League highlight of the week.
The Oil Kings were full marks for the advantage after 20 minutes, controlling territorial play and outshooting the Tigers 13-6. Goaltender Sebastian Cossa, projected to be a first round pick at the 2021 National Hockey League draft, was not tested early on.
There had to be a sense of urgency for the Tigers. Indeed, it was “must-win” time for the hosts as the only prize available in the Central Division during this WHL season comes in form of laying claim to first place atop the standings.
And it was the Oil Kings that showed up in the Gas City with a strangle-hold on those bragging rights. They left with an even larger cushion atop the Division.
“They play a really similar style to us,” said Tigers captain Ryan Chyzowski. “They want to play fast and they break things down over 60 minutes. I think right now they’re doing a little better job with their game plan than we are.
“Their speed tires us out. It’s basically the same thing we want to do with them, but they’re just a little bit more consistent with it right now.”
The Tigers were more assertive in the early going of the second period and it paid off when Oil Kings rearguard Matthew Roberston was jettisoned at 6:36 for cross-checking. The Medicine Hat power play, tops in the WHL at over 40-percent efficiency, capitalized at the 8:22 mark.
Cole Clayton took a pass at the blueline from Brett Kemp and whistled a shot that looked to be deflected past Cossa by Ryan Chyzowski at the top of the Oil Kings crease. The goal was awarded to the 20-year-old Clayton, his eighth of the season, the most among WHL defencemen so far this season.
Following its power play marker, the Tigers took five straight penalties, including a high-sticking double-minor by Corson Hopwo 60 seconds into the third frame. Medicine Hat emerged unscathed after successfully killing off the four-minute penalty, but the next two infractions were costly.
Just 35 seconds into a cross-checking minor to Brett Kemp, Williams redirected a Kaid Oliver shot past Bjorklund. Then with Dru Krebs serving a hooking minor, Robertson sent a point blast into the Tigers cage past a screened Bjorklund to make it 4-1 with just over 11 minutes to play.
“We didn’t give ourselves a chance,” Desjardins said. “We were in the penalty box the whole last part of the game and it was the same thing tonight. I think the guys wanted to compete, I think they wanted to have a really good third period. I think the excitement was there.
“But, it’s hard when you’re killing to create momentum.”
The teams meet Sunday in Edmonton, the fifth of six meetings this season.
Ice Chips…The DUBNetwork three stars were Oliver, Williams and Neighbours…The Oil Kings outshot the Tigers 44-25…Edmonton went 2-for-6 on the power play. The Tiger were 1-for-2…Bjorklund, who was outstanding in the Tigers 3-0 loss at Edmonton, faced 97 shots in the two contests. “He had a couple guys run into him in the crease, which is hard,” said Desjardins. “He’s battled through that as well. He’s got good focus. He’s a good goaltender. We know every night he’s in there we’re going to have a chance to win.”…The Tigers played without veteran defenceman Eric Van Impe…Forward Nick McCarry returned to the lineup this past week and played in h is 99th career game Saturday. Forward Caleb Willms is gone for the season with a lower body injury…Oliver, Neighbours and Williams were dominant, combining for eight points on the night…Oil Kings forward Dylan Guenther was not in the lineup. The first overall pick at the WHL Bantam Draft is in Texas with Team Canada at the IIHF World U18 Championship.