Maintaining an upbeat mood is becoming a challenge for the Red Deer Rebels.
“That’s probably the biggest thing. It’s been hard to stay positive especially over our last eight or nine games. It’s been tough,” Rebels captain and leading scorer Conner Bleackley said Tuesday.
“Still, there are some positives — I don’t think last night’s score (7-1 loss at Calgary) was indicative of the game. We kind of shot ourselves in the foot with all the penalties. The main thing for us now is taking it one day at a time and it starts in practice today.”
The Rebels, who are a sorry 1-7-1-1 in their last 10 outings, have failed to make hay in front of their own fans this winter. Red Deer was 22-11-2-1 at home during the 2012-13 Western Hockey League regular season, but heading into tonight’s game with the visiting Edmonton Oil Kings, have a rather dismal 12-13-0-3 record at the Centrium.
Like Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter, Bleackley is perplexed by the home-ice shortcomings, but doesn’t have a definite answer for the problem.
“For whatever reason we haven’t played well here on a consistent basis,” said Bleackley. “Normally, being home here in Red Deer should be a big advantage. Last year teams knew they weren’t going to have an easy game in Red Deer and we’ve show that at times this season.
“It’s really disappointing to see our home record is around .500. If you go into the playoffs with a record like that at home you’re not going to give yourself a chance to win, so that’s something we’re going to work on and get turned around. We have a four-game homestand right now and I don’t think it could come at a better time for us.”
If the Rebels are to qualify for the playoffs — and they are just two points ahead of the Prince Albert Raiders in the hunt for the final berth in the Eastern Conference — they’ll have to tighten up defensively.
They could still land that final post-season spot if the Raiders were to fall completely flat down the stretch, but their knack for turning the puck over and failing to execute proper coverage would make for a short run.
Red Deer does hold an advantage over most teams with Patrik Bartosak holding down the fort. But after turning aside 29 shots Monday at Calgary, the veteran goaltender now owns the franchise record for most saves — 1,739 — in a single season for a reason.
“We can’t allow 40 shots a night on a regular basis,” said Bleackley, who suggested it all boils down to a lack of focus.
“We have Patty back there who’s going to make the first save every time and maybe even the second, third and fourth save.
“The biggest thing for us is keeping our focus. We’ll have five good minutes and 10 bad minutes, one good period and one bad period. That’s something that you can see at the start of the season, but at this time of the year you can’t allow that to happen. That kind of falls on the leaders’ shoulders and it’s something we have to shore up and straighten out going into the playoffs. We have to maintain the (playoff) spot we have right now and hopefully move up.”
With the Raiders hot on their heels, there is every expectation that the Rebels will play with a sense of desperation tonight, through Friday and Saturday homes dates with Vancouver and Swift Current, and beyond.
“Every single game from here on out will have a playoff feel and will the biggest game of the year for us,” said Bleackley “They (Raiders) are tight to us and no one is going to do us any favours. We have to take care of our own business and that’s all we should expect.”
The Rebels have stumbled their way through February, but they’re capable of putting together a positive run. There is a precedent — the club recorded five consecutive wins before hitting the skids.
“It’s there and we’ve shown it, it’s just maintaining that on a consistent basis,” said Bleackley. “Good teams do not win five and then lose seven, or whatever.
“It’s a huge issue right now, but there’s still 12 games left and once we do get into the form like we had on the streak I think we can be kind of a scary team.”