The Red Deer Rebels were red-faced Saturday night at the Centrium.
The Rebels were dealt an embarrassing 6-1 Western Hockey League loss by the Lethbridge Hurricanes in front of a home-ice gathering of 5,374, a beat-down that was every bit as convincing as the score was lopsided.
Red Deer GM/head coach Brent Sutter was naturally disappointed with the way the contest unfolded considering the teams came in tied for top spot in the Eastern Conference. Yet, he didn’t sound surprised.
“It’s a trend, something that’s been going on here for awhile now,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get a realization here of what we are and how we have to play … how we have to get our identity to where we want it to be. But if tonight isn’t a wake-up call, it’s not going to happen.
“When you get beat and beat bad by a good team, a very good team … when you get it handed to you pretty good, it’s humbling. It better be for everybody. If not, then our care level isn’t where it needs to be.”
The game was tied at one when ‘Canes forward Giorgio Estephan pounced on a turnover at the Lethbridge blueline, broke in alone and beat Rebels netminder Rylan Toth at 18:28 of the first period. Not only did it prove to be the winning goal, but the Rebels’ performance dropped off from that point on.
“As soon as something happened to us that wasn’t good, we seemed to go the other way and get off our game. We stopped playing the way we want to play,” said Sutter, who gave positive marks to only forward Brandon Hagel.
“We just struggled, from our goalie right on out. Like I told the kids, our best player tonight was 160 pounds. Brandon Hagel was our best player.”
The ‘Canes had plenty of skaters who fit into the positive category, including Carter Folk, Kord Pankewicz and Egor Babenko, who busted the game open with second-period goals. Folk beat Toth to the top corner at 8:27, Pankewicz connected 1:33 later and Babenko tipped a point shot by Red Deer native Andrew Nielsen past Rebels back-up Trevor Martin at 14:23.
Martin replaced Toth, who blocked 16 of 20 shots, following the Pankewicz goal and stopped 11 of the 13 shots he faced over the second half of the game. He also surrendered a third-period goal to Ryley Lindgren, who broke down the right side and wired a shot to the far top top corner.
Barrett Sheen scored his fourth goal of the season to give the ‘Canes a 1-0 lead at 12:24 of the first period, and Rebels captain Wyatt Johnson evened the count 82 seconds later, finishing off a nifty give-and-go with Lane Pederson.
From there, and certainly after Estephan tallied, the ‘Canes were in command.
“We’ve been playing some good hockey,” said Lethbridge head coach Brent Kisio, whose club improved to 24-11-10-0 and into sole possession of first place in both the Central Division and Eastern Conference heading into the Christmas break.
The ‘Canes are 5-1 in their last six games — all on the road — and 8-2-0-0 in their last 10 overall.
“It was a long, hard road trip,” added Kisio. “We talked about setting out and trying to get first place by Christmas and of course we were excited for tonight’s game. Red Deer is hosting the Memorial Cup so it was a chance for us to kind of measure up. It’s always a good challenge and one that our guys were ready for.”
The ‘Canes won a total of 20 games last season and are clearly a different squad in 2015-16.
“Right from day one we just talked about looking forward and not back,” said Kisio. “We haven’t looked back at all. We’re trying to get better every day and we want to make playoffs. That was our our goal at the start and it’s still our goal.”
With the off-season additions of 20-year-old forwards Cory Millette and Justin Gutierrez and overage defenceman Arvin Atwal — along with the ongoing development of players such as Estephan, Lindgren, Brayden Burke and Tyler Wong — Lethbridge has done a complete 360 in relation to the 2014-15 campaign.
Goaltending has also been a key. Red Deer product Jayden Sittler, while seldom tested over the final two periods, made 25 saves for the victory, his dazzling stop on Presten Kopeck with five seconds remaining in the opening stanza maintaining the ‘Canes’ lead and momentum.
“It’s our older guys and our leaders who come to work. It makes coaching easier when guys want to work hard,” said Kisio. “It’s just a group that wants to work hard and win games.”
While the Rebels are still in decent shape — tied with Calgary for second place in the Conference, just two points back of Lethbridge — heading into the Christmas break, Sutter wants to see a change in attitude and performance when the club resumes play Dec. 27 against the visiting Edmonton Oil Kings.
“Over the next six to seven days the players can go home and enjoy spending time with their family and their friends, but also be thinking about what’s gone on here for probably the last 12 to 14 games as far as our level of play,” said the Rebels boss.
“Things have gotten away from us that we have to get back. Obviously, to a man the players all have to get better. Everybody has to get better.”