The Red Deer Rebels have come to lean on their captain in the big moments ever since Conner Bleackley arrived in town three years ago.
He has been clutch the past month, and on Tuesday night he again nearly pulled a game out from the flames, but a late collapse saddled the Rebels (20-13-3-2) with a 4-3 shootout loss to the Swift Current Broncos (19-15-0-4) in front of 5,234 fans at the Centrium.
“Throughout the season there’s going to be games you deserve to win but don’t, and vice versa, so I think tonight was one of those games,” said Bleackley. “Tonight we didn’t shut it down there in the last few minutes and then it’s never a good thing to lose in a shootout.”
Bleackley had three points, including a go-ahead goal at 14:19 of the third period, for the Rebels while Riley Sheen scored twice in the first period, but both were shut down in the skills competition. Rylan Toth had 28 saves in the loss.
Jake DeBrusk scored twice for the Broncos and added the clincher in the shoot out while Brett Lernout tied the game at 19:08 of the third period to force overtime. Glen Gawdin had the other shootout goal and goalie Landon Bow was terrific in net, making 35 saves, including stopping both Rebels shootout attempts.
Bleackley assisted on both of Sheen’s goals in the first period and then finished off a great cross-ice pass from Brett Cote in the third to put the Rebels up 3-2 5:41 remaining in regulation time.
The three points gives Bleackley six in three games since Christmas, and he has done it all while dealing with tragedy off the ice. Two of his friends died in a car accident in High River last week, he headed home after Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Edmonton Oil Kings for one of their funerals but was back for Tuesday’s game.
“The escape for me is getting out there and playing hockey and doing something that I love,” he said. “I’m just not thinking too much and going out there and playing my game.”
Losing in a shootout was tough after it looked like the Rebels had the game wrapped up. But with Bow on the bench for an extra attacker, they were unable to clear the puck on multiple attempts and Lernout eventually wired a one-time from the point past Toth.
“We’re doing a lot of good things and we just got to stay the course,” said Rebels general manager/head coach Brent Sutter. “You knew it was going to be one of these games. The last time they were in here it was a different score (6-2 Rebels win on Dec. 11) but it was real tight for two periods. We just got to learn from it and make sure in the last minute of a game, up a goal, that we get the job done.”
Toth had an uneven night. He was shaky early, giving up a bad rebound on the Broncos first goal that was buried by DeBrusk, but he settled down over the final 40 minutes and played a solid game, making several key saves in the third period to keep the Rebels in the game.
The loss also spoiled a solid night for Sheen who was a plus-three in addition to his two goals. The play-making left winger is usually on the other side of the scoring ledger, dishing out the passes instead of finishing them off. He came into the game with six goals and 28 assists.
“He’s a little jitter bug out there and makes plays in the corner and he finds me with his eyes in the back of his head,” said Bleackley.
Defenceman Colton Bobyk made his debut for the Rebels after being acquired from the Spokane Chiefs on Saturday, playing in his first game since Nov. 11 as he battled a knee injury. Sutter was impressed with what he saw, matched up with Austin Strand on the blue-line.
“He just kept it simple, he did exactly what we wanted him to do,” said Sutter.
The Rebels are back in action on Friday as whey host the Kootenay Ice at 7 p.m.
NOTES — The Rebels were 0-for-2 on the power play while the Broncos were 0-for-3 … Defenceman Josh Mahura was the odd man out for the Rebels to allow Bobyk into the lineup … Rebels forward Adam Musil missed another game with a lower body injury and remains day-to-day … The Broncos were without top defenceman Dillon Heatherington who is with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Montreal and Toronto, and top-six forward Carter Rigby who is suspended.