It was yet again another Red Deer Rebels game that was closer — at least on the scoreboard — than was necessary.
The Rebels were easily the superior team through the vast majority of Friday’s WHL game at the Centrium and yet nearly blew a three-goal, third-period lead before settling for a 5-4 win over the Kootenay Ice.
“It came down to fundamentals again,” said Red Deer GM/head coach Brent Sutter, who was critical of his club’s inability to stick to the basics after building a 5-2 lead.
“The last 10 minutes we got way from our game. We didn’t get pucks deep, we tried to play one-on-one hockey and took penalties. Again, it’s stuff we still haven’t learned.”
Red Deer was seemingly set to cruise home with the two points when captain Wyatt Johnson scored a short-handed goal at 6:40 of the final frame.
But the Ice, outshot 45-26 on the evening, clawed their way back when Jared Legien connected at 10:32 and then got a power-play goal from Zak Zborosky less than a minute later.
“You can’t take your foot off the pedal and get away from your game plan,” said Sutter. “We do that and it effects us . It happened again to us tonight to make it close and it didn’t need to be close.”
The Rebels carried the play in the opening period but it was the Ice who struck first, Austin Gray taking a pass from Jesse Zaharichuk and beating Rebels netminder Rylan Toth over the shoulder from the bottom of the faceoff circle. It was Gray’s first goal of the season.
Red Deer drew even a mere 48 seconds into the middle stanza on Ivan Nikolishin’s 19th of the season, his snap shot from the top of the circle finding the far corner past Ice goalie Wyatt Hoflin, who was excellent while making 40 saves.
With the middle of the period approaching, Conner Bleackley notched a go-ahead goal for the Rebels. Bleackley carried the puck over the blueline, broke down the left side, cut wide across the crease and tucked the puck past Hoflin.
The Ice, though, wouldn’t go away. With Rebels defenceman Colton Bobyk served a slashing penalty, Matt Alfaro buried a rebound to knot the count at 2-2.
Then came what should have been a major turning point in the contest. Cale Fleury leveled Rebels forward Presten Kopeck along the centre-ice boards and was assessed a major and game misconduct for a head check at 16:27.
Kopeck stayed down for a brief period and needed help to reach the Red Deer bench — he was back in the game in the third period — but the Rebels took advantage of the infraction with Bobyk blasting a low slapshot through a crowd and by Holfin with 15 seconds remaining in the period.
Evan Polei added another goal at 1:51 of the final frame with the Ice still short-handed to give the Rebels a two-goal lead and following Johnson’s goal the home squad appeared to be home and free.
However, the Ice had other ideas and reduced Red Deer’s lead to a single goal before pulling Hoflin in favour of an extra attacker and pouring on the pressure in the final 90 seconds.
“Full marks to Kootenay, they battled and made it close,” said Sutter. “The last minute and 30 seconds we didn’t get the puck out of our zone.
“But those are things we still have to understand and learn. Good teams, championship teams, don’t get away from the fundamentals. They stay with it and we still have to learn how to do those things the right way.”
The Rebels host the Lethbridge Hurricanes tonight at 7 p.m., then break for the Christmas holidays, returning Dec. 27 for a home game versus the Edmonton Oil Kings.