It was a truly dejected Brent Sutter who met with the local media following yet another Western Hockey League setback Wednesday.
And rightfully so.
The Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach has tried to pinpoint the positives and stressed the importance of looking ahead even during the club’s darkest hours this season, but he couldn’t find any silver linings following a 4-1 loss — the team’s seventh in succession — to the Medicine Hat Tigers in front of a recorded gathering of 4,202 at the Enmax Centrium.
“The result tonight is disappointing, obviously, and it’s disappointing that we can’t seem to play 60 minutes,” said Sutter, whose squad trailed 3-0 after the opening period. “There are things that are obviously concerning for me and the coaches with this group right now.”
What has irked the Rebels boss through most of the season is his team’s inability to come up big on home ice. Wednesday’s setback dropped Red Deer’s record at the Centrium to 12-12-0-3.
“You can’t win in this league if your older players, your 18- 19- and 20-year olds aren’t good for you,” said Sutter. “Again, it was a lack of preparation again here tonight. I don’t know what it is at home. We just aren’t focused like we need to be. We’re not a team that’s resilient enough at home.”
The Rebels directed three shots at Tigers netminder Marek Langhamer in the first minute and change, but the visitors shrugged off the early pressure and opened the scoring just 2:39 into the contest when Tommy Vannelli’s power-play wrist shot from the point beat a screened Rebels goalie Patrik Bartosak.
Adam Mowbray roofed a rebound past Bartosak at 8:11 for just his second goal of the season and Anthony Ast, from a scramble, buried another rebound with three minutes remaining in the period.
“We come into tonight’s game and we’ve lost our last two games at home, we’ve lost six in a row and we got one out of eight points on the road (last week in B.C.),” said Sutter. “We had every reason to make sure that we came out of the gate and played to the level that we need to play to at this time of the year.
“To come out like we did tells you some things, and about certain individuals. It’s disappointing because it’s stuff that you work on all year to get them ready for this time of the season. You teach them and go through things and yet you come out like this tonight. It’s not something you can be very pleased about.”
The Rebels picked up their game in the middle frame and got their only goal from Conner Bleackley when the captain sniped his 25th of the season with a wrist shot from the faceoff circle.
Red Deer pushed the pace early in the third period, but the Tigers regrouped and carried the play through the final 10 to 12 minutes, sealing the deal with Curtis Valk’s empty-net marker at 18:56.
“Our start was the key. We’ve struggled a bit against their goaltender and tonight we got a goal through a screen and two on rebounds, so that was obviously the difference,” said Tigers GM/head coach Shaun Clouston, whose club was 0-2 again Red Deer this season.
“They (Rebels) really regained some momentum in the second period and we had to refocus and get our game back, and I thought as the third period went on we got stronger.”
While the Rebels continue to struggle, the Tigers are finding their groove at precisely the right time of the season.
“We’re finding ways to win. Our goaltender is playing well and Valk’s line (consisting also of Cole Sanford and Trevor Cox ) is doing a lot of the scoring,” said Clouston. “But we are getting some contributions from other guys right now. It was a real solid team effort tonight and that’s kind of what it takes at this time of the year.”
The Rebels didn’t get any help elsewhere Wednesday, as the Prince Albert Raiders — with Cole Cheveldave making 41 saves and Red Deer native Collin Valcourt scoring twice — upset the host Edmonton Oil Kings 4-3 and the Regina Pats downed the visiting Kootenay Ice 3-2.
Red Deer is now just three points up on the Raiders for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and trail the Pats and the Brandon Wheat Kings — the two teams directly ahead of them — by five points.
The Rebels visit the Oil Kings Friday and host the Saskatoon Blades 24 hours later.