The WHL standings tell a story that is not friendly to the Red Deer Rebels, and they’re fine with that.
On paper, Red Deer doesn’t look like they have any hope in their first round playoff series against a Lethbridge Hurricanes team that finished 22 points above them in central division.
“We’re certainly going in as underdogs when there’s a 20-something point difference,” Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter said.
“(The) playoffs are a whole new season. I really like they way we were playing for about two-and-a-half to three weeks. I thought we were playing more playoff-type hockey. Our responsibilities were a lot better with how to play without the puck. I thought we generated enough offence to score goals. We were getting good goaltending; it was the best our defence played all year.”
That playoff-type hockey Sutter referenced likely included two crucial wins in the final week of the season when Red Deer beat Medicine Hat on the road and followed that with a home win against Calgary.
Both Red Deer and Lethbridge dropped their final two games of the regular season.
The Hurricanes did beat the Rebels in four out of five games this year, with the last one a 7-3 defeat in Red Deer on Feb. 8.
Sutter insists that’s not on the minds of the players, only the blank slate playoffs provide.
“Now we have to make sure we’re ready to go for Saturday. It’s a different season,” Sutter said.
“The level of play obviously cranks up and the intensity cranks up. You’re playing for keeps now.”
It’ll be a tall task for the Rebels to stop the blazing offence of the Hurricanes, a team that had 280 goals in 72 games this year and had three forwards with 35 goals or more. That will be especially tricky for a Rebels blueline that has just 54 playoff games played between seven players.
That experience largely comes from 21-year-old veteran Colton Bobyk (23 playoff games) and 19-year-old Brandon Schuldhaus (18 playoff games).
“We have to continue to play a good solid team game,” Sutter said.
“We have to be smart with the puck. We have to be smart without it and how we manage the ice and making sure that we’re doing the details the right way. Things you work on all year, things that were encouraging the last three weeks.”
Up front the Rebels have a lot more experience, with Evan Polei, Brandon Hagel, Michael Spacek, Austin Pratt back from last years’ Memorial Cup squad.
They also added 18-year-old Lane Zablocki who squared off against those same Rebels in a gruelling seven-game second round series last year.
Add into the mix Austin Glover, 21, who will play his final WHL game at some point in these playoffs and has suited up for 224 in his career, the Rebels look deeper than at first glance. Glover came to town with hopes of a deep playoff run and he thinks the Rebels have the experience necessary to keep it close with the Hurricanes.
“Lately I think we’ve been playing really good. You can’t really flip a switch and go into the playoffs and change your game,” Glover said.
“I think we have pretty good depth. We can roll our lines so when it gets down the stretch I think we’ll be conditioned pretty well.”
In their forward group, the Rebels have 103 playoff games between them, compared to the Hurricanes with only 72.
Puck drops to open the series on March 25 in Lethbridge, with game two Sunday before it returns to Red Deer on Wednesday, March 29.
“There’s no hidden secrets between their team and our team, it’s a divisional game,” Sutter said. “We know each other well enough, so hopefully we learned a lot about how we need to play and I’m sure they’re sitting there saying the same thing.”