The Medicine Hat Tigers haven’t wavered from their approach to building their teams over the years, preferring to place size on the blueline while employing a small and speedy group of forwards.
Whatever, it’s been a blueprint for success and one that has presented problems to the majority of WHL teams, the Red Deer Rebels included. But it’s currently the Rebels’ responsibility to find a way to curtail the Tigers’ speed, and if they can come up with a solution, it could very well sway the Eastern Conference quarter-final — starting tonight in Medicine Hat — in Red Deer’s favour.
Not all of the Tigers’ up-front skaters are slight, but the keys to their attack are five-foot-eight Trevor Cox and five-foot-nine Cole Sanford, who finished second and fourth, respectively, in league scoring during the regular season.
If the Rebels can shut down the high-flying pair, or at least limit their effectiveness, their chances of pulling off a mild upset will rise.
“They (Tigers) relay a lot on quick neutral-zone transitions and that’s something we’ve been working on this week — limiting their speed through the neutral zone,” Rebels captain Conner Bleackley said Friday, prior to boarding the team bus. “Eliminating men in our zone is going to be huge because those little guys like to just roll off you and they make those small-area plays.
“Being physical on them, that’s how we have to shut them down.”
Easy to say, of course, harder to execute. Despite their diminutive stature, Cox, Sanford and the likes of Steven Owre are strong on their skates, a fact that doesn’t escape Bleackley.
“They’re good on their edges. Those smaller guys, you think ‘why can’t you just hit them’, but a lot of time they’re slippery and they get in and out,” said the Rebels captain. “As long as we can keep them to the outside and eliminate guys I think we’ll be all right.”
Obviously, goaltending will be another key. Rylan Toth, who will almost certainly start Game 1 between the Red Deer pipes, can often be better than the guy at the other end. But he and No. 2 stopper Taz Burman have been prone to inconsistency, and allowing the occasional soft goal will likely prove extra costly.
The Tigers, of course, have more weapons than small forwards Cox, Sanford and Owre. Dryden Hunt and Markus Eisenschmid, for starters, are potent scorers and provide excellent depth up front.
For the Rebels to succeed in this series, their depth has to shine through. Red Deer had six players hit or surpass the 20-goal mark this season and if Evan Polei hadn’t gone down with an injury and missed nearly two months, he would been the seventh forward to reach that figure.
Brooks Maxwell and Riley Sheen were red-hot down the regular-season homestretch and while it would be to unreasonable to suggest that they could continue to produce at a similar pace in the playoffs, they’ll have to be on their game. The same applies to Bleackley, who despite being lost to the team for a lengthy stretch with a groin injury and with just one game under his belt in preparation for the post-season, remains the Rebels’ premier forward.
The Colorado Avalanche first-round draft pick put in extra time this week as he attempted to regain his timing during practice sessions. A healthy and game-ready Bleackley will be a boon for the Rebels.
“I’ve just tried to work as hard as I can in practice. I didn’t get many practices in before playing the one game last weekend,” he said. “I think this week has been good for everybody to get ready for tomorrow night.”
If Friday’s practice was an accurate indication, Bleackley will skate on a line with Maxwell and Sheen tonight. Normally a centre, Bleackley will shift to the wing, with Maxwell taking the faceoffs.
“Those two guys have been playing well and hopefully I can come in and just keep it going,” said the Rebels’ official on-ice leader.
While attempting to slow the Tigers’ high-speed game through Games 1 and 2 (Sunday in Medicine Hat), the Rebels first and foremost must focus on their own game.
“That’s what we’ve been doing all year,” said Bleackley. “As long as we play our game, and that’s a hard, physical 60-minute game . . . I think over a seven-game series that can be physically taxing on the other team.
“That’s what we’re going to try and throw at them and just consistently keep doing it shift after shift.”