If the underdog Red Deer Rebels strut into the Saddledome tonight with all the tenacity of a lap canine, Mike Williamson will be surprised.
In fact, the Calgary Hitmen head coach is fully expecting the Rebels to show their teeth during tonight’s opening game of the WHL Eastern Conference semifinal and throughout the best-of-seven series.
“We saw these teams play very close games during the regular season and I wouldn’t expect anything else in the playoffs,” Williamson said Wednesday.
The Rebels raised a few eyebrows when they swept Prince Albert in a conference quarter-final while limiting the otherwise offensively-potent Raiders to a total of five goals.
The Hitmen, meanwhile, took out the Swift Current Broncos in five games. Williamson insisted that the Broncos, despite the brevity of the series, provided his troops with a major test.
“It really was a close series. On paper, you see 4-1 in games and you kind of think we ran away with it, but it wasn’t that way at all,” said the Calgary bench boss. “We had really hard-fought games and I think it was good for our guys. We found ways to win but three of the games went to overtime. We definitely played a scrappy team.”
Rebels netminder Patrik Bartosak continued his stellar play against the Raiders and with a 1.25 goals-against average and .962 save percentage, currently sits third among WHL playoff stoppers in both categories. Next in line is Hitmen goaltender Chris Driedger, at 1.91 and .942.
“He’s played very well, he was a big reason we were able to close that (quarter-final) series out,” said Williamson. “I think this will be another good challenge for Chris. In my mind, he’s a top guy in the league and needs to measure himself and his play against guys like Bartosak.”
The Hitmen have a large defence with the likes of Alex Roach, Jaynen Rissling and Peter Kosterman — all six-foot-four — and a solid group of forwards that includes Victor Rask, Cody Sylvester, Greg Chase, Brooks Macek and Brady Brassart, who were all key performers during the regular season and have carried that into the playoffs.
“I like our depth,” said Williamson. “We’ve talked about that from the start of the year, about our depth in all three positions — goaltending, defence and up front. We have some veteran, experienced guys who we like to lean on.
“The key for us will be staying on an even keel. This is going to be a very, very close series. Brent (Rebels GM/head coach Sutter) has his team play with discipline and structure and they work extremely hard, so we have to have those components of our game as well.”
That being said, the Hitmen are at least cautiously optimistic heading into the series.
“Everybody is confident and excited about advancing to the second round of the playoffs,” said Williamson. “At the same time we know that to keep playing we have to keep getting better and we need guys to step up and do a little bit more each and every day.”
Rebels/Hitmen Eastern Conference quarter-final schedule (*if necessary):
Tonight: Red Deer at Calgary, 7 p.m.; Friday: Red Deer at Calgary, time TBA,; Monday: Calgary at Red Deer, 7 p.m.; Tuesday: Calgary at Red Deer, 7 p.m.; Thursday, April 11: Red Deer at Calgary, 7 p.m.*; Saturday, April 13, Calgary at Red Deer, 7:30 p.m.*; Tuesday, April 16: Red Deer at Calgary, 7 p.m.*