It was ‘80s night Friday at the Centrium and the Red Deer Rebels were hoping their WHL meeting with the Calgary Hitmen would be a throwback to the last time the clubs met.
The Rebels downed the visiting Hitmen 3-2 Dec. 27, but they didn’t get a repeat this time, falling 5-1 in front of a recorded gathering of 6,141.
Unfortunately for the Rebels, the loss wasn’t the bad news as five players — defenceman Nick Charif and forwards Lukas Sutter, Conner Bleackley, Wyatt Johnson and Adam Musil — went down with injuries and didn’t return, leaving the club with 13 skaters in the third period.
“We have four kids in the hospital right now getting x-rays,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter, in reference to Charif, Sutter, Bleackley and Musil. “With Johnny . . . we’ll know a little more tomorrow, but we think he has a concussion.
“When you lose five players like that and four of them are top forwards, it makes it tough the rest of the night.”
The game didn’t start well for Red Deer as netminder Patrik Bartosak surrendered goals on the first two shots he faced. Jake Virtanen scored on a wrap-around 2:41 into the contest and Colby Harmsworth notched his third goal of the season on a screened shot from the point at 5:15.
When Trochu native and forward Mike Winther — making his Hitmen debut after being acquired from the Prince Albert Raiders in late December — connected from the side of the net at 7:27 of the second period, Bartosak’s night was over. The third-year goalie stopped seven of the 10 shots he faced and rookie Taz Burman blocked 16 of 18 the rest of the way.
Linden Penner upped the count to 4-0 before the middle frame was out and Joe Mahon, with his fourth of the season, beat Burman two minutes into the third period.
By that time, the Rebels, who host the Lethbridge Hurricanes tonight, were the walking wounded.
“But it’s funny because that’s when we stared working and competing and playing harder, when it became an urgency factor,” said Sutter. “I think that’s what was disappointing outside of the injuries, the fact that we never had that urgency early in the game.
“Patty also had a tough game, with three goals on him on 12 shots, or whatever it was. We obviously have to play better than that but right now I’m just concerned about trying to get enough guys to play here tomorrow night. It’s another big game for us and we’ll have to see how the kids are when they come back from the hospital.”
Presten Kopeck ruined Hitmen goaltender Chris Driedger’s shutout bid with a power-play tally at 13:33 of the final frame. Kopeck potted his sixth of the season with a slapshot from the right faceoff circle.
Prior to that, the Rebels couldn’t buy a goal. The home side mounted some impressive pressure in the second period and created a trio of excellent scoring chances, but two of the shots — from the low slot — were wide of the net. Rhyse Dieno also fired wide on a two-on-one in the third period.
The visitors, meanwhile, made the most of their opportunities, especially early.
“We scored on our chances in the first period and that allowed us to settle in a bit,” said Calgary head coach Mike Williamson, whose squad was outshot 9-4 in the first 20 minutes.
“I thought we played better after that but I didn’t like our first period.”
While Winther played his first game in a Calgary jersey after recovering from an upper-body injury, Red Deer fans also got their first look at Hitmen early-January acquisitions Adam Tambellini and Connor Rankin, both forwards.
“That was Winther’s first game with us. He looked tired but I think he’s going to add a lot,” Williamson said of the Dallas Stars prospect. “Tambellini and Rankin are also going to bring a lot but we’re still trying to figure out some chemistry. But they’re all good additions, for sure.”
While the Rebels had a two-game winning streak snapped, the Hitmen won for the first time in three outings. Calgary sits atop the Eastern Conference, six points clear of the Edmonton Oil Kings.
“I liked where our game was at a couple of weeks ago better than right now, but we were better tonight than we were last week so hopefully we can build on it,” said Williamson.
Despite the setback, the Rebels remain tied with Prince Albert for the eighth and final playoff berth in the conference as the Raiders were upset 3-1 Friday by the host Saskatoon Blades.