The Red Deer Rebels were the better team for one-third of Saturday’s Western Hockey League game versus the visiting Portland Winterhawks.
Unfortunately, the Rebels were on the other side of the ledger for the first two periods until carrying the play in the third, and the end result was their 15th loss of the season.
“That’s what’s disappointing about tonight, playing just 20 minutes. If we’d played that hard in the first 40 minutes we would have given ourselves a chance to win the hockey game,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter, following a 5-4 loss to the league’s top team before 5,719 fans at the Enmax Centrium.
“But again, with this group it’s an ongoing thing — trying to get these guys to understand that every night there has to be urgency in our game. We have to play a certain way. We have structure in our game and we have to play that way.”
The visitors got a goal from Chase De Leo a mere nine seconds into the contest and led the entire way.
Paul Bittner upped the count to 2-0 at the eight-minute mark — cashing a centering pass from Brendan Leipsic — and Adam Musil got the home side on the board at 11:31 with a power-play goal directly off a faceoff in the Portland end.
Leipsic potted his 19th goal of the season three minutes later with Red Deer rookie forward Vukie Mpofu off for holding, one-timing a cross-ice feed from Nic Petan past Red Deer netminder Patrik Bartosak.
The ‘Hawks upped the count to 4-1 at 7:17 of the middle frame — Alex Schoenborn cashing in following a poor clearing attempt by the Rebels — before the hosts rebounded with back-to-back tallies four minutes apart from Mpofu and Conner Bleackley. Mpofu connected from the low slot and Bleackley notched the highlight-reel marker of the evening, busting across the blueline, cutting to the net and roofing a shot over netminder Jarrod Schamerhorn.
However, Leipsic notched his second of the evening and 20th of the season later in the period following a three-way passing play that involved Bittner and defenceman Derek Pouliot, and the ‘Hawks took a 5-3 lead to the dressing room.
The final frame belonged to the Rebels, who fired 17 shots at Schamerhorn but were rewarded only once when Dominik Volek took a great feed from Rhyse Dieno and ripped a shot past the Portland goalie while killing a penalty. Despite outshooting their guests 17-10 in the last 20 minutes, the Rebels couldn’t find the equalizer.
“In the third period we do it the right way and we get scoring chances. We get a lot more zone time, spend more time with the puck and we play better,” said Sutter. “Again it comes from within our group. I’m not very pleased at all tonight.
“For two periods we didn’t have any urgency in our game. We played a real soft, passive game and then in the third period the guys decided they wanted to play and when we decide to play the right way we can play with anybody and we can play well,” Sutter added.
For most of the night, the Rebels played too soft defensively against a highly-talented, potentially explosive squad. The visitors turned virtually every Red Deer error into a scoring chance or at least a shot on goal.
“They’re first in the league for a reason,” said Sutter. “But again, like I was telling the kids after the second period — we can play with anybody if we want to set our minds to it. I thought the first two periods we just had a lot of guys who weren’t pushing like we need to push when you’re playing with passion. That’s what was disappointing about tonight.”
Portland GM/head coach Mike Johnson was impressed with the Rebels’ third-period uprising.
“We capitalized on our early chances and I thought Red Deer kept pushing it the whole game and really notched it up in the third period,” he said. “They have a lot of good young players and their work ethic is solid, outstanding. We’ve had have a tough schedule lately. We’ve had a lot of games especially with guys playing in the Subway Super Series last week, so I was proud of how they battled.”
Sutter, meanwhile, has been irritated with his club’s home-ice play most of the season. The Rebels have won only six games at the Centrium, as opposed to eight on the road.
“At home you have to dictate what you’re about and we just don’t seem like we like to do that very often,” he said. “Whether it’s distractions or something else . . . I don’t know.
“But I’m not happy with this group right now. We can’t have one game, then one average game, then two bad games and then two good games. You never move up in the standings.”
To make matters worse, two of the teams directly in front of the Rebels in the Eastern Conference standings won Saturday.
“Now we’re four points out of a playoff spot,” said Sutter. “We have no one to blame but ourselves because we won’t throw it out there like we need to on a consistent basis.”
The Rebels are in Lethbridge Tuesday to face the Hurricanes, then visit the Kootenay Ice Friday and host the Hurricanes Saturday at 7 p.m.