The Red Deer Rebels didn’t turn in the proverbial solid 60-minute performance Wednesday night at the Enmax Centre.
But in the end, two out of three was good enough to post a 2-0 Western Hockey League victory over the Kamloops Blazers before a recorded gathering of 4,129.
The Rebels jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead, then watched as the visitors — who will finish in last place in the Western Conference — carried the play in the middle stanza. Red Deer, however, picked up the pace in the final frame and preserved Patrik Bartosak’s bid for his sixth shutout of the season.
“I thought our first period was critical. We needed to have a good start,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “We had to make sure we got some momentum early in the game and carried it through.
“In the second period our work ethic dropped off. Our back pressure didn’t support our rushes and we had too many turnovers. But in the third we got back to it and got to be a working team again. We kept the game simple and basic, played lane hockey and made sure we were skating and moving. We were much better in the third.”
Vukie Mpofu scored the only goal the Rebels would need when he tipped Kayle Doetzel’s point shot past Kamloops netminder Bolton Pouliot 12:13 into the contest.
Rhyse Dieno added what would prove to be an insurance marker with his 22nd of the season just over two minutes later. Brooks Maxwell won the faceoff in the Kamloops zone and Grayson Pawlenchuk relayed the puck over to Dieno, who stepped around Pouliot from the top of the crease.
“For sure, the early lead was important for us,” said Rebels captain Conner Bleackley. It’s never easy to play against a team like that, a team that’s playing for their pride. They’re going to come at you and they want to play spoiler.
“We got the first two goals and then kind of sat back. But we got the two points and that’s the most important thing.”
The victory boosted the Rebels back into eighth spot in the Eastern Conference thanks to the Everett Silvertips’ 6-1 win over the visiting Prince Albert Raiders, who are a point back of Red Deer.
The Blazers, as Bleackley noted, were playing strictly for the front of their jerseys and forced Bartosak to make 18 of his 32 saves in the second period.
“Patty was good tonight, but he never really had any high-percentage shots on him,” said Sutter. “In the second period we gave up some things around the net but other than that everything was kept to the outside.”
Still, Bartosak had to be sharp, particularly in the middle frame. His best save came with one minute remaining in the game when he robbed an unchecked Nick Chyzowski from the edge of the crease.
Meanwhile, Pouliot was equally stellar at the other end. The former Rebels netminder finished with 34 saves, including 15 in the third period.
“He makes the first save quite often and makes a flashy save here and there,” said Bleackley. “He played quite well against us the first time we saw him this season (in a 4-1 win for the Blazers Nov. 5 at Kamloops).”
The Rebels have just eight games remaining to nail down a playoff berth, with their next outing Friday against the Medicine Hat Tigers at the Centrium.
“For two periods, anyway, that’s the way we want to play the rest of the season,” said Sutter. “It’s important to make sure we keep our foot on the pedal here and not take things for granted and make sure we’re a 60-minute team.
“We have room for improvement. But this was a big win, a big two points and we have to move forward now.”
Added Bleackley: “We have to build off this win and come ready to work at practice tomorrow. It’s a huge game Friday. Every gave from here on in is the biggest game of the year for us.”
Just notes: Rebels rookie forward Adam Musil had his points streak (2-2-4) snapped at four games, while Dieno (4-1-5) extended his run to three games . . . The third period featured a pair of scraps, with Evan Polei tangling with Kamloops defenceman Ryan Rehill and Kolton Dixon mixing it up with Blazers rearguard Austin Douglas . . . The three stars were (1) Bartosak, (2) Dieno and (3) Pouliot.