Nobody saw the Leduc Chrysler Oil Kings coming.
After finishing the regular season 14-15-5, the Oil Kings wouldn’t have even made the playoffs if they were in the South division.
Regardless of where they finished, or how they recorded 20 points fewer than the Foothills CFR Chemicals Bisons, the Oil Kings caught fire once the calendar turned to March and no one was able to slow them down in the playoffs.
“They were 100 per cent a different team than the one we saw in the regular season. You have to give credit to their players and coaching staff. We walked through them pretty easily in the regular season and for whatever reason, we couldn’t get past them in the playoffs,” said Bisons captain Brett Trentham. “They played a hell of a series and it was fun to be a part of.”
The Oil Kings skirted through the playoffs with series wins over the Maple Leaf Athletic Club Beverly Optimists, won in Game 5 against the No. 2 St. Albert Tire Warehouse Raiders and swept the division-winning Sherwood Park J. Ennis Kings in the Alberta Midget Hockey League semifinals.
In the finals, they were able to knock off the favoured Bisons with stellar special team play.
The Oil Kings power play unit was anemic through the first three rounds, going four-for-37. Against the Bisons, they ratcheted up their play on the man advantage, converting seven times on 16 opportunities.
They scored twice on the power play in Game 4 March 26 at Sobeys Arena in Leduc, clinching the league title with a 3-1 win.
“We couldn’t stay out of the penalty box and we couldn’t find the back of the net on the power play when we needed it. That was the difference: they get two power play goals tonight and we lose by two. That was something we hoped to shore up, but they did a good job on their side making their special teams work,” said Bisons head coach Sandy Henry.
With the Oil Kings win and the Cariboo Cougars knocking off the Greater Vancouver Canadians in the B.C. Midget AAA Hockey League final, the Oil Kings advanced directly to the Telus Cup.
The Cougars are hosting the Telus Cup this year, meaning there would be no need to hold the Pacific championships, as the Alberta and B.C. teams already qualify for nationals.
The Telus Cup was one of the goals since day one for the Bisons. They were doing an excellent job short handed during their run through the South division, killing all 15 of the Calgary Buffaloes opportunities in the South final.
“We studied ourselves, worked on improvements in practice and went out and executed,” said Oil Kings head coach Taylor Harnett. “We found a way to beat them and were lucky to get pucks through. Once you get pucks through, anything can happen.”
As good as the Oil Kings power play turned out to be, their penalty kill was drastically better and steady throughout the course of the playoffs.
Allowing only one short-handed goal in 49 chances, the Oil Kings didn’t give the Bisons power play an inch all series. They were even lethal down a man.
They scored their second shorty of the playoffs 1:57 into the opening period, when Game 2 double-overtime hero Tyler Smithies picked off a pass deep in the Bisons zone and beat Ben Laidlaw short side.
The Oil Kings turned the neutral zone into a cement mixer, slowing down the Bisons team speed, not allowing them to set up their offence all series.
Following their Game 1 3-1 win in Strathmore March 19, the Oil Kings took a 2-0 stranglehold on the series with a 5-4 double-overtime win March 22 at Sobeys Arena.
With their backs against the wall, the Bisons played Game 3 in front of what felt like the entire Town of Strathmore March 24. Not only did fans line the boards around the arena, but the crowd also went a couple rows deep along the glass in sections.
“It was really uplifting hearing the ‘Go Bisons’ chants and hearing them cheer when we got a rush going,” said Bisons defenseman Landon Melzer. “At times it was nerve racking, looking up and seeing the huge crowd, but it was a really cool experience.”
Brandon Machado, who was incredibly ill the morning of Game 3, battled through his physical ailments and tipped in a slap-pass in double overtime from Melzer, extending the series.
“The guy missed school, laid in bed all day, didn’t eat and we weren’t sure he was going to be able to go tonight,” said Henry. “And then, to come out and play like that – there is no way to describe what he was able to pull off.”
For Machado, it was his third overtime-winning goal of the playoffs. His line with Trentham and Tarun Fizer was often the most dangerous in the finals.
“It was a do or die game,” said Machado. “I woke up and I wasn’t feeling great, but I didn’t want our team to go out like that, so I just made it a mental thing and got over it. I just wanted to put everything on the line.”
It would have been incredible to see what the Game 5 crowd would have looked like, especially with all the uncertainty surrounding the location of the Bisons next season.
“We wanted to make a deep run and go out on a bang in case this was the last season for the Bisons in Strathmore,” said Trentham. “It’s a tough way to go out. At the end of the day, they won and we lost. It sucks, but that’s how life goes.”
If this marks the end of the 24-year run with the Bisons in Strathmore, they definitely treated the town to an incredible regular season and thrilling post season run.
“I’m real proud of this team. We had a great year, a lot of ups and downs, a lot of adversity; it’s all about growing up. I think some guys really grew up and I think that’s going to help them moving on,” said Henry. “Our goal isn’t always what we do at the time, but what we leave behind (and) what do they take with them. I’m really proud of this group.”