Brent Sutter was convinced his players had their dates mixed up Wednesday.
“We started the (Christmas) break yesterday. We were awful tonight,” the Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach grumbled following a 6-3 Western Hockey League loss to the Kelowna Rockets before a recorded audience of 4,426 at the Enmax Centrium.
“We played the last 10 minutes of the second period and the first 10 of the third. Not just because we scored goals, but we were battling and competing and had emotion and intensity in our game. That’s how way we have to play, but for the first 30 minutes and the last 10 minutes tonight we just played with no push and no drive.”
The Rebels, to their credit, rallied from a 3-0 deficit and pulled even on Conner Bleackley’s second goal of the night — a power-play tally — and 14th of the season 2:26 into the third period. But the visitors stormed back with a pair of goals in the next two minutes and change and closed out the evening with an empty-net marker from Tyson Baillie at 18:49 to cap their league-best 28th win of the season.
The Rockets’ Justin Kirkland scored the only goal of the first period, his power-play wrist shot from the point finding its way past a screened Rebels netminder Rylan Toth. Kelowna upped the count to 2-0 when Tyrell Goulbourne worked his way in front and stuffed a shot through Toth’s pads at 6:47 of the middle frame, and teammate Rod Southam crashed the net and jammed in a loose puck a mere 73 seconds later.
“Obviously it’s a lack of focus,” said Sutter, in reference to his club’s defensive woes while spotting the visitors a three-goal cushion.
Bleackley ignited the Red Deer comeback when he hauled in a lengthy pass from Brett Cote, busted through the neutral zone, cut around a Kelowna defender and whipped a high shot past netminder Jackson Whistle at 14:50 of the second period. Defenceman Kayle Doetzel’s point shot eluded Whistle just 37 seconds later and the Rebels took a large dose of momentum into the intermission.
The hosts took advantage of their traction when Bleackley, in the low slot, took a nifty feed from Presten Kopeck and brought the fans to their feet with a heavy wrist shot early in the third, but Rockets’ rookie Dillon Dube buried a rebound for the eventual winner and Kirkland beat Toth with a sharp-angle slapshot.
Game, set and match.
“If you get six goals scored against you in a game you don’t deserve to win,” said Sutter.
“We have to keep our goals against down, right from our goalie on out. Tother needs to be better, we have to be better with our puck decisions and our battles.
“We just had a lot of turnovers in the first 30 minutes tonight. Then we got moving, had one really good forechecking shift and got going right after that and played pretty well for the next 20 minutes. But when you’re playing good teams in this league you better be able to match that. I like to think we’re a good team. When we do it right and pay attention to things and we’re dialed in, we’re a really good team. When we don’t we get soft and make soft plays, and we don’t get what we need from everybody.
“Outside of a couple or three guys tonight, we never had much.”
Bleackley, who has found his scoring touch as of late, was arguably the best forward on the ice Wednesday but didn’t take much solace in his two-goal performance.
“It doesn’t do much when it’s in a losing cause,” said the Rebels captain. “Obviously we’re pretty disappointed in the dressing room.
“Against any team in this league it takes a full 60 (minutes). It was a disappointing effort that we put forth because you could see what we can do during that 20-minute stretch. But you can’t win a hockey game when you only play 20 minutes.”
While Sutter didn’t see much he admired in the majority of his players, he was impressed with newcomers Nelson Nogier, a defenceman, and forward Austin Adamson, who made their Rebels debut after being acquired from the Saskatoon Blades last Sunday.
“I liked them both,” said the Rebels boss. “Nogier is going to be a steady guy, a really responsible guy who moves the puck well, and Adamson was very engaged tonight. That’s why he got moved up to one of our top lines — he was better than the guys who were playing ahead of him when the game started.
“You can tell he’s a character kid, and ‘Noge’ is too. Those two kids are going to fit in here nicely for us, but we have to get back at it after Christmas and get back to how we can play and we’ll be fine. But we can’t have games like this. It’s unacceptable.”
• The Rebels are now idle until Dec. 27 when they face the Oil Kings in Edmonton. The two clubs meet the following day — at 5 p.m. — at the Centrium . . . Whistle was the busier of the two goaltenders while turning aside 25 shots. Toth made 18 saves . . . Earlier in the day, Rebels second-year forward Adam Musil was one of 12 WHL players selected to compete in the BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects game Jan. 22 in St. Catharines, Ont. The game is a showcase of the CHL’s top 40 players eligible for the 2015 NHL entry draft. Musil sat out Wednesday’s game with a lower-body injury.