For the Red Deer Rebels, ‘Tie-breaker Tuesday’ was a case of deja vu all over again.
With the vast majority of the 5,411 fans at the Enmax Centrium solidly behind them in a must-win game, the Rebels carried a one-goal lead into the third period before surrendering three goals and falling 5-3 to the Prince Albert Raiders.
Too many turnovers and too many shots against resulted in yet another Rebels setback on home ice, this time allowing the Raiders to snare the final playoff berth in the WHL Eastern Conference and a quarter-final date with the Edmonton Oil Kings.
“I don’t even know where to start with it because it’s something that we’ve been fighting with all year at home . . . just a lack of urgency,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter.
Down 3-2 after 40 minutes, the Raiders got a power-play goal from overage forward and Red Deer native Collin Valcourt 2:21 into the final frame. Just a little over two minutes later, Dakota Conroy, who fed Valcourt on the two-on-one tying goal, potted the eventual winner, his sharp-angle shot from down low squeaking through the pads of Rebels netminder Patrik Bartosak.
It was a goal that Bartosak, who was assessed a tripping penalty prior to Valcourt’s marker, would have liked back. But then again, he faced 47 shots and made at least a half dozen sizzling saves.
His teammates failed to push back the rest of the way as the Raiders clamped down defensively while allowing just six third-period shots.
“When you’re up a goal going into the third you have to make that push,” said Sutter. “Our goalie takes a penalty and we end up getting a power-play goal scored against us. We just got scrambly after that and never gained any momentum.
“Then they (Raiders) get the other one on a bad-angle shot. Patty, though, made some big saves for us.”
Raiders forward Jayden Hart opened the scoring on a two-on-two rush 7:08 into the contest. Wyatt Johnson evened the count at 11:52 when he broke down the left wide, cut hard to the net and stepped around netminder Nick McBride, and Evan Polei hauled in a stretch pass from Brooks Maxwell and gave the Rebels their first lead on a breakaway at 7:43 of the middle frame.
Reid Gardiner replied for the visitors just over three minutes later, cruising in on a two-on-none break with linemate Hart following a turnover at the Red Deer blueline.
“We gave up some odd-man rush goals, a two-on-oh breakaway, a two-on-one,” said Sutter.
Rhyse Dieno potted a power-play goal with six minutes remaining in the third, scoring from the edge of the crease after taking a corner pass from Conner Bleackley.
But that was it for the Rebels, who were 16-17-0-4 at the Centrium this winter as opposed to 19-16-1-0 on enemy ice.
“Mentally, we just weren’t good at home this season,” said Sutter. “We were a much better road team for whatever reason. The one night you want to be your best at home . . . well, it just wasn’t our best game tonight.
“Leaving here, that’s the disappointing thing . . . the fact that we weren’t good enough tonight to win and we weren’t good enough throughout the year at home. When you’re a below .500 hockey team (at home) it’s tough to say you’re a playoff team. At the end of the day, that’s the bottom line.”
Raiders captain Josh Morrissey, who sealed the deal with an empty-net goal in the final minute, expressed pride in the manner in which his club performed with the game — and the season — on the line.
“It was pretty exciting to be in a Game 7, do-or-die type of situation,” said the talented defenceman and member of the Canadian junior team at the 2014 world championship.
“I was pretty proud of the way we battled out there. It kind of went back and forth for the first few goals. We had a good start, Red Deer had a good second period and we found a way in the third. We got a power-play goal and some timely saves from our goalie.”
The Raiders were forced into the tie-breaker and an extra seven-hour bus trip when the Rebels — in their final regular-season game — took advantage of a depleted Oil Kings lineup and posted a 5-0 win Sunday at Edmonton.
Both clubs came into the contest with 35 victories and 75 points. The Raiders handled the adversity of playing the clutch contest on the road and ended the Rebels’ season.
“We could have made some excuses, but we just came in and played our game,” said Morrissey, whose club appeared to be out of the post-season picture as recently as early February.
“The way we’ve played the last month or so to reach this point, sort of playing in Game 7 situations . . . I think that experience helped us tonight.”
l The three stars were (1) Conroy, (2) Dieno and (3) Gardiner . . . Rebels forward Aspen Sterzer missed the final two periods after suffering a shoulder separation. Even with a Red Deer victory, his season was over.