A year ago, the Red Deer Rebels might have wilted under the pressure and found a way to gas a three-goal lead.
But that was then, this is now, and these days the Rebels are a more mentally sound crew, capable of withstanding a relentless attack such as the one the visiting Chilliwack Bruins mounted on Saturday night.
One night after clearly outworking the Portland Winterhawks in a 6-2 win, the Rebels jumped out to a 3-0 lead over the Bruins and then hung on for a 3-2 victory that some might say was not well-earned. But does the means outweigh the result? Hardly.
“We didn’t have our feet moving the same way we did on Friday, for whatever reason,” said Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin. “We got away from the game we like to play, but still managed to find a way to win.”
Brett Ferguson struck for a pair of first-period goals and defenceman Simon Witt upped the count to three-zip approaching the midway point of the second frame, and yet the Rebels were not the aggressors. Former Medicine Hat Tiger Colton Grant cut into Red Deer’s lead with a power play goal late in the period, and Roman Horak connected on a breakaway barely four minutes into the final frame.
The visitors outshot the Rebels 10-7 over the final 20 minutes and 36-21 overall, but Red Deer netminder Darcy Kuemper stood tall while his teammates bent, but didn’t break.
“They made it tight with that second goal, but I thought we played well down the stretch and did what we had to do to keep the lead and ultimately come out with a victory,” said Wallin. “It was a huge weekend for us, a huge four points, and now we have to continue to build off of it.”
Obviously, the Rebels are a better club when Kuemper is performing as he can. And the Rebels are a more successful team when their special teams are clicking.
Red Deer surrendered a power-play goal in each of the weekend outings, but also scored twice with a man advantage. The Rebels’ power play continues to hum along at a 23.2 per cent success rate, seventh-best in the league, and while their penalty kill is ranked 15th at 78 per cent, there’s been a noticeable improvement.
On Friday, in particular, the Rebels were super-aggressive on the penalty kill, and that part of their game was OK the next night. Wallin, though, insisted it had nothing to do with a change in format.
“I think a lot of it (special teams success) just comes down to the compete level. When you’re competing hard you’re confident,” he said. “With our penalty kill, it’s just a matter of the guys not hesitating. We haven’t changed anything on it, it just comes down to execution. When you’re working hard you seem to be a little quicker. You get there that half step faster and bear down on the puck.”
Regarding Kuemper’s recent surge, as in three consecutive wins . . .
“With ‘Kuemps’ it’s the same thing,” said Wallin.
“It’s just been an attitude thing with him. He came back from pro camp and was feeling good abut himself, and rightfully so because he had a good camp (with the Minnesota Wild). But he let up a bit when he came back and you just can’t do that.”
Kuemper stopped 22 shots and allowed four goals in a win over visiting Brandon on Oct. 11, then elevated his game in a big way during the weekend after spending two days in Vancouver as part of the Rebels’ annual RCMP drug squad excursion.
“He had a couple of days off to think about things,” said Wallin. “He came back and was really focused and had a great practice on Thursday, and carried that through into the weekend. He looked confident, he looked focused. He was battling on every puck, and when your goaltender does that it gives the guys in front of him more confidence. I’ve said all along that he’s capable of being a real good goaltender in this league and we need him to play like that for us every night.”
The Rebels could also use the services of injured sniper Landon Ferraro, especially with the Calgary Hitmen in town Tuesday night.
Ferraro has seen little action since suffering a knee injury on Sept. 19. He’s appeared in all of five games, and is listed as day-to-day after being examined by Detroit Red Wings doctors last week.
“The doctors in Detroit said the same thing we’ve heard here, that he has a slight tear in his meniscus but nothing that warrants surgery at this time,” said Wallin. “He’s continuing to work in therapy to strengthen it and hopefully it continues to improve for him.”