Rejoice! Hockey’s back

A few thoughts on the Red Deer Rebels WHL opening weekend

For me, hockey has been back a lot longer than the Red Deer Rebels home opener Sept. 23. In fact, it’s been around for exactly a month, when the Rebels opened training camp in late August.

Still, the buzz of opening day, albeit on a balmy fall day in Central Alberta is something that draws little comparison. Fans chanting loudly throughout the night (Including the Centrium staple of “insert opposing goalie’s name here” Sucks), the Rebels scoring a lot of goals (seven) and of course, what would an opening game win be without GM/head coach Brent Sutter cautioning everyone there’s still 71 games left in the year.

Around the league there is some definite pessimism around the Rebels this season and that seems fair, considering the losses of four key components from last year and a few forwards with an injury history who will be relied on heavily. Most projections have them battling for third in the division again.

No one really expects them to contend for a division title this year, and frankly I’m sure the Rebels are willing to embrace that underdog role, as they did so valiantly in the playoffs against Lethbridge last year.

The Hurricanes are back and strong in 2017-2018, the Medicine Hat Tigers could struggle with the loss of several key pieces and Mason Shaw out long term. Both the Tigers and Hurricanes went 1-1 to open the season. While it’s a long season, whatever struggles and gaps they have left from last season, leaves the window open just a crack for the Rebels.

Perhaps the most intriguing and unique aspect of the Rebels in 2017-2018 which is hard to quantify this early with such a small sample size is speed.

It’s been the buzzword they’ve used since day 1 of training camp and through their opening two games it was on display in spurts. There’s no denying that all six of Red Deer’s top forwards (Brandon Hagel, Lane Zablocki, Kristian Reichel, Jared Dmytriw, Mason McCarty and Grayson Pawlenchuk) are fast, but it’s still a matter of how the team deploys and harnesses that going forward.

With the Rebels up 4-2 in the third period of the home opener, a lead like that on a Brent Sutter team is an open and shut case nine times out of 10. For a few shifts, it looked like the Rebels sat back defensively and turned the puck over by being too cautious, trying to protect a lead, often times a tough thing to do for a team of thoroughbreds that needs to get out skate opponents into the ground.

Three goals in quick succession, including two by Pawlenchuk and the barn door was kicked down. It’ll be interesting to watch how Sutter manages a team that he thinks is one of the more balanced he’s had in a number of years and how he exercises all the new-found speed demons on his roster going forward.

Sutter said of the speed in the opener: “At times (it was there), when you are turning the puck over you’re not doing a lot of forward skating. You’re doing a lot of stopping and starting and coming back into your own zone. At times we were fine. It’s using our hockey sense and intelligence and playing smart with the puck.”

If speed is the Rebels calling card this season, they might catch the league by surprise.

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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