The Red Deer Rebels played with fire in the first period of Friday’s Western Hockey League contest versus the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
And sure enough, the home squad got burnt as the ‘Canes struck for a trio of power-play goals en route to a 4-3 shootout victory before 5,838 fans at the Centrium.
“Their power play was the difference, that and the bad penalties (assessed to the Rebels),” said Red Deer GM/head coach Brent Sutter, who watched his squad tagged with three infractions, including a five-minute kneeing major to Evan Polei, who also picked up a game misconduct.
“For 11 minutes (of the first period) we were fine, but this was like a playoff game and you can’t take those kinds of penalties.”
The Rebels opened the scoring 2:19 into the contest when Reese Johnson connected from a scramble after linemate Braden Purtill rang a shot off the post behind ‘Canes netminder Jayden Sittler.
But the Lethbridge power play went to work a few minutes later with Jeff de Wit serving a tripping penalty called in the offensive zone. Tyler Wong chipped a loose puck past Rebels goalie Rylan Toth following a shot by Georgio Estephan that bounced off the post.
Michael Spacek buried a power-play rebound to restore Red Deer’s lead at 8:27. But Polei was nailed for kneeing Ryley Lindgren — who never returned to the game — a minute later and the ‘Canes cashed in on the tail end of the penalty, with Egor Babenko pulling the trigger on his 20th of the season.
Then, with Red Deer defenceman Colton Bobyk off for high sticking, the ‘Canes’ league-best power play struck again as Justin Gutierrez, from the faceoff circle, wired a low shot to the far corner.
Despite being outshot 15-6 in the opening 20 minutes, the visitors held a 3-2 lead and never trailed the rest of the way.
“The first penalty was 160 feet from our net and Evan’s penalty was not a good one, putting us down for five minutes,” said Sutter.
The Rebels were outplayed in the first half of the middle frame and were outshot 14-9 in the period while getting a handful of stellar stops from Toth.
“We didn’t have a great first 11 minutes of the second period until we called the timeout, then we got got back to playing like we can play,” said Sutter. “It got to be kind of a tic-for-tac game after that.”
Red Deer was arguably the better team in the third period and finally got the equalizer at 7:44 when Adam Helewka unleashed a shot from the top of the circle that beat Sittler on the short side.
From there, both goaltenders made a series of stunning stops to send the game to a scoreless overtime and the ensuing shootout. The ‘Canes first shooter, Babenko, scored the lone goal of the skills competition.
The win gave the ‘Canes a single-point lead over Red Deer for first place in the Eastern Conference and was also their fourth over the Rebels in as many meetings this season.
But if Friday’s outing was any indication, the Rebels have closed the margin between themselves and their Alberta foes.
“We couldn’t widen the gap, to be honest. They outscored us by a huge margin the first three games,” said Rebels assistant captain Conner Bleackley. “We came out real strong tonight and kind of shot ourselves in the foot with all those penalties. That five-minute penalty was a huge one. We made it to the last minute (of the penalty kill) and they managed to get one.
“But I liked our effort. Shootouts can go either way. They got the extra point tonight but I think we’re hungry to play them again. We’ll learn from it, move on and get ready for tomorrow.”
Bleackley was referring to tonight’s contest against the visiting Vancouver Giants, who did the Rebels a favour Friday by bouncing the Hitmen 5-2 at Calgary.
“Lethbridge is a good hockey team and we know that not everything is going to go perfect every night,” said Sutter. “We have to understand that and we have to deal with adversity better when a game is not going exactly the way you need it to go.
“Five on five, I thought we played a pretty good game tonight, but again, the undisciplined stuff bothers you because it’s stuff that can’t happen at this time of the year and moving forward.”
Sittler turned aside 36 shots through 65 minutes for his 13th win of the season. Toth made 33 saves.