Playoffs await the Rebels

It was only three years ago that Colin Archer and the Red Deer Optimist Rebels experienced a deep playoff run that ended with a heart-breaking 3-2 overtime loss to the Prince Albert Mintos in the final of the national midget AAA hockey championship. To the Red Deer Rebels captain, it must seem like five years ago. Or more.

It was only three years ago that Colin Archer and the Red Deer Optimist Rebels experienced a deep playoff run that ended with a heart-breaking 3-2 overtime loss to the Prince Albert Mintos in the final of the national midget AAA hockey championship.

To the Red Deer Rebels captain, it must seem like five years ago. Or more.

Since joining the Western Hockey League Rebels in the fall of ‘07, the 19-year-old defenceman has never participated in a post-season contest, a dry spell that could be coming to an end. Heading into tonight’s meeting with the visiting Regina Pats, the Rebels sit sixth in the Eastern Conference, six points clear of the Moose Jaw Warriors and Swift Current Broncos, who are tied for the final post-season spot.

“I’m really excited about this season, it’s not the situation we’ve been in the last couple of years,” Archer said Thursday. “It’s something I’m unfamiliar with in this league but it’s a lot of fun. Every night it feels like we’re in a playoff game. It’s been that way for the last month and a half now, it’s been so tight.

“Every night you have to come out to play, you have to compete and have that energy. All of the rinks seem to have that energy, like it is a playoff game, so we’re getting used to that and we’re looking forward to the stretch run.”

The Rebels are coming off a win-one, lose-one road trip, but have been playing with a swagger over the past three weeks, with the same degree of confidence they displayed in December.

“We struggled to find our way earlier in the season but we always knew we had the ability to be an elite team,” said Archer. “I think we kind of just decided that we could be that team, that it was just a matter of competing every night.”

On a personal level, snaring a post-season berth would fill a void in Archer’s WHL career. The local product honed his skills with playoff appearances while coming up through the minor ranks, and the absence of spring-time hockey in the last two years has been more than annoying.

“Being in a playoff race is a different experience with this (major junior) being a different level, but it’s still something I’ve missed so much the last couple of years,” he insisted. “It’s the reason you play the game — the regular season is awesome, but playoffs and wanting to win a championship is what it’s all about, right?”

Right, agreed Rebels second-year rearguard Justin Weller.

“This is an exciting time for the team,” said the 18-year-old.

“It’s getting close to the playoffs and it’s exciting to be in a race after being out of it last year. We’re right in the thick of it right now.”

l Pencil in Canadian Hockey League president David Branch as one of the many admirers of the renovated Keystone Centre, the home of the 2010 Memorial Cup host Brandon Wheat Kings.

Branch, the OHL head, joined fellow commissioners Ron Robson of the WHL and Gilles Courteau of the Quebec Major League on a tour of the host sites Tuesday and Wednesday, and came away impressed.

“The Keystone Centre complex is absolutely incredible,” Branch told reporters as he prepared to depart Brandon.

“I even started to ask (during the tour), ‘Is there another complex quite like this?’ We just kept walking and walking and walking. I don’t know if there’s anything quite like it — certainly that I’ve seen — in North America. To have everything there, under one roof, I think will only help serve to create a unique experience for the Memorial Cup and for all the people that come and witness it.”

After viewing the $5 million-plus in upgrades that have been poured into the Keystone Centre, visiting the hotels that will house the Memorial Cup teams and getting a quick glance at the Western Manitoba Centennial Auditorium ­— the site of the 2010 CHL awards ceremony — the commissioners suggested the 2010 championship will be difficult to top.

The words of praise were welcomed by events chair Jeff Cristall.

“The goal of every Memorial Cup host committee is to make it the best Memorial Cup ever,” he said. “We have no concern that we’re not going to be able to do that here.”

Just notes: Former Vancouver Giants forward Evander Kane will attend a game between his old team and the Chilliwack Bruins Saturday and Giants brass are discussing the possibility of the 19-year-old taking part in a ceremonial puck drop. The Atlanta Thrashers’ first-round pick in last year’s NHL entry draft will be back in his hometown for the start of his Olympic break . . . The Prince George Cougars need all the fan support they can get, so, realizing they are up against a rather major event tonight in Vancouver ­— and in a show of appreciation to the fans they do have — the team will show live TV coverage of the Winter Olympics on the video scoreclock at CN Centre prior to the Cougars’ game against the Portland Winterhawks. “Our plan is we’re going to have the Olympics opening ceremony on the big screen as time allows and we’ll play as much of it as we’re able,” Cougars vice-president Brandi Brodsky told Ted Clarke of the Prince George Citizen. “There are conflicts these days with Cougar games and there’s never going to be a game where there’s nothing else going on in the city. This is a big one, and we’ll do what we can to incorporate it into our game, rather than trying to battle against it. Sponsor ads will have to come first, but every second we get we’ll have the ceremonies up there for our fans to see.” The Kamloops Blazers will follow the same plan tonight, displaying the opening ceremonies on the big screen prior to their game against the Kelowna Rockets . . . If goaltending is the key to playoff success, the Everett Silvertips should be in great shape during the pre-season. Thomas Heemskerk turned away all 36 shots he faced in the ‘Tips’ 4-0 win over the Kelowna Rockets Wednesday, in the process moving into second place in the league in both goals-against average (2.49) and save percentage (.921). Teammate Kent Simpson holds down top spot in both categories, at 2.32 and .924. . . . The Kelowna Rockets took a can’t-lose chance with Brett Bulmer and emerged as the big winners. The Rockets snared Bulmer in the 11th round of the 2007 bantam draft and the 223rd player to be selected has emerged as a productive major junior skater. The 17-year-old Prince George product has, in fact, racked up 11 goals and 31 points in 51 games in his rookie season. Kelowna assistant GM and head scout Lorne Frey admitted Bulmer has been a big surprise in terms of his development and production. “In bantam, he was only about five-foot-seven, and sometimes he competed hard and showed skill, then other times he was non-existent,” Frey told Warren Henderson of the Kelowna Capital News. “But there was potential and there was a lot we liked about him, so we took a shot at him in the 11th round. When he started to grow you could see his upside more and more. By his second year of midget (in Prince George) he was near the top in league scoring and we knew we had a guy with a lot of potential. He’s a power forward with a lot of skill, he has very quick hands and we like his competitiveness. Having said that, he still has lots of room to improve and develop and, as he gets older, we expect he’ll be more consistent.”

gmeachem@bprda.wpengine.com

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