The Red Deer Rebels haven’t matched up well against the Medicine Hat Tigers in recent seasons, but the 2015-16 campaign has been something different all together.
The Rebels completed a six-game Western Hockey League season sweep of their southern Alberta foes Wednesday night, skating to a convincing 4-1 victory in front of 4,715 fans at the Centrium.
Outplayed and outshot 17-9 in a scoreless opening period, the Tigers cranked it up a notch through the first half of the middle frame, but the hosts — with Adam Helewka recording a natural hat trick — carried the rest of the frame and dominated from there in men-versus-boys fashion.
“In the first period we had lots of shots but we never got to the net and didn’t get any second and third opportunities,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “We didn’t have any net-front presence.
“But in the second period we went to the net and generated some offence. Those three goals we got were strictly because we were around the net.”
Helewka snapped a scoreless tie 3:02 into the second period after being denied by Tigers goalie Mack Shields from close range. The 20-year-old forward continued on with the play, carrying the puck behind the net and banking a backhand off Shields for his 30th goal of the season.
“That first goal was a goal-scorers goal,”said Sutter.”To throw it off the back of the goalies pads or whatever, the back of his legs … not a lot of guys would think of making that play, but a goal scorer makes that play.”
Helewka connected a second time roughly eight minutes later, cashing a rebound of a Kayle Doetzel wrist shot from the point while parked at the edge of the crease.
Shields, who was under siege much of the evening while facing 50 shots, robbed Helewka shortly after with a brilliant sliding save, but the former Spokane Chief completed his hat trick late in the period, capping a tic-tac-toe passing play with Jake DeBrusk and Ivan Nikolishin with Red Deer on the power play.
“His hands and his intelligence in the offensive zone are what separates him from other individuals, plus he’s got a heck of a shot,” said Sutter of the sniper he acquired from the Chiefs on Jan. 1.
“The whole team was playing well tonight and moving pucks quickly,” said Helewka. “My linemates were doing a good job winning battles and got me a couple of passes.
“It was a good game. We kind of strayed away the last couple of games from the way we know we can play, but we’re getting back to it. Everyone is getting back to playing the way they can and it feels good.”
Adam Musil, who assisted on two of Helewka’s markers, potted the final Red Deer goal at 6:34 of the third period, stepping into a shot from the circle and beating Shields to the far corner.
Rebels goaltender Rylan Toth was a mere 21 seconds away from posting his sixth shutout of the season when Tigers forward Steven Owre scored with Red Deer’s Evan Polei serving a cross-checking penalty assessed at 18:53.
“We got lots of shots tonight and played a pretty decent game, but I didn’t like the fact we took a penalty with a minute and some left in a 4-0 game,” said Sutter. “We have to be smarter than that. Doing something like that can turn a playoff series around.
“But we had 50 shots on net and for the most part we did what we needed to do here tonight.”
The Rebels played with just five defencemen after top-pairing rearguard Nelson Nogier fell ill prior to the contest.
“They can’t complain about ice time, five guys got to play all night,” Sutter joked. “We didn’t take any bad penalties until the last one and didn’t give up a lot of short-handed time.
“Those guys (defencemen) stayed out of the (penalty) box tonight, they stayed on the ice and that was important. When you’re playing short-handed like that and especially with the type of defenceman we didn’t have in the lineup, it’s important to just keep the game simple and for the most part they did.”
• Toth made 31 saves while recording his 26th win of the season … The Rebels moved a single point ahead of the idle Brandon Wheat Kings and into second place in the Eastern Conference, but still trail the front-running Lethbridge Hurricanes by three. The ‘Canes defeated the visiting Saskatoon Blades 7-4 Wednesday … The Rebels dressed forward Akash Bains, who plays midget hockey at the Delta Hockey Academy in B.C., for a second consecutive game … Red Deer is in Calgary Friday to face the Hitmen and hosts the Tri-City Americans Saturday.