Part of the mythology of North American playoff hockey is the idea heroes emerge from unlikely places.
Despite an unceremonious exit from the Western Hockey League playoffs in the Eastern Conference Final, Evan Polei emerged for the Red Deer Rebels as that unlikely hero.
In three WHL seasons, playing all but two games with the Red Deer Rebels, Polei wasn’t known as a goal scorer. His best season, 2015-16, he had 16 goals and 14 assists in 58 games. Over the three seasons, he has played in 171 games, scored 39 goals and 30 assists.
But he found that extra gear in the playoffs. In 17 playoff games he scored eight goals and four assists. Two of those goals were game winners. For perspective, during the regular season he averaged a goal about every four games. In the playoffs he statistically had a goal almost every other game.
“I thought I played the way I needed to play. I was physical, I moved my feet, I got pucks low.” said Polei.
The six-foot-two tall forward conceded that he wasn’t perfect, including a turnover in Game 4 in the Eastern Conference Final to the Brandon Wheat Kings that cost the team, but thought he adapted to the playoff grind well.
“Other than that I thought I played really well. I was happy with how I played,” said Polei. “I just wish our team would have had a better result than we did.”
The game winners included one in the Eastern Conference Semifinal Game 1, when the Rebels beat the Regina Pats 3-2, and in Game 3 against the Calgary Hitmen — he had two goals in that game.
He also assisted Adam Musils’ game winning goals in Games 2 and 7 against the Pats. In all, Polei had a hand in four game winning goals for a Rebels team that won nine games in the post-season.
“I think Musil and I gel really well together,” Polei said about his linemate. “We played very well for the team, but as Brent Sutter (Rebels GM/head coach) said we can’t have 30 per cent of the guys show up for playoffs when we need everybody to show up.
“That’s what we’re going to work towards here for the Memorial Cup.”
The 20-year-old from Wetaskiwin, a Detroit Red Wings prospect at the 2015 NHL Prospect Tournament, has earned a reputation as a physical player who does not back down. According to www.hockeyfights.com Polei had six fights this season and 22 in his WHL career.
The Rebels were eliminated from the WHL playoffs last Friday in Brandon following a 5-2 loss to the Wheat Kings. As hosts of the Memorial Cup, they have a spot in the tournament and will practice constantly until it starts on May 20 when the Rebels play the Ontario Hockey League champion.