The Red Deer Rebels ended their regular season Saturday before learning the identity of their first-round Western Hockey League playoff opponent.
“It took 72 games to find out,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter, whose club completed a 5-1 loss to the Edmonton Oil Kings at Rexall Place about 20 minutes before Anthony Bardaro’s shootout goal gave the Prince Albert Raiders a 4-3 win over the visiting Saskatoon Blades.
With the win, the Raiders clinched fifth place in the Eastern Conference — two points clear of the Swift Current Broncos — and will be at the Centrium Friday and Saturday for the first two games of a best-of-seven conference quarter-final against the fourth-place Rebels. Games 3 and 4 will go the following Tuesday and Wednesday at Prince Albert.
The Rebels, it could be argued, will be slight favourites in the quarter-final after winning the regular-season series with the Raiders 2-1-1.
“All of the games were good, hard-fought games,” said Sutter. “Prince Albert has some real good offensive players, but I think we match up well against them. You have to expect it to be a heck of a series.”
The Rebels closed out their regular season on a negative note Saturday. The visitors, though, were still in the game after 40 minutes despite being minus the services of six of their top players, including netminder Patrik Bartosak, who served as Bolton Pouliot’s back-up.
“We had a real good first period, then in the second they pushed us pretty hard and we just didn’t get a whole lot of momentum going our way,” said Sutter. “We weren’t great at moving the puck and they seemed to play a lot of the period in our end.”
The clubs were tied 1-1 after 20 minutes, with Cole Benson scoring for the Oil Kings in front of a loud crowd of 16,370, and Tyson Ness replying for the Rebels.
Trevor Cheek and Curtis Lazar staked the home side to a 3-1 lead with second-period goals and Edgars Kulda and Mitch Moroz, on the power play, sealed the deal with goals 62 seconds apart early in the third.
“When you’re up against a real good team with five of your top players not dressed and your No. 1 goalie not playing, you’re thinking that it’s going to catch up to you at some point,” said Sutter.
“But we rested these guys (including forwards Turner Elson, Rhyse Dieno and Brooks Maxwell and defencemen Mathew Dumba and Brady Gaudet) for the right reasons.
“We wanted to get them some rest and we didn’t want to risk running into injuries. Plus, it gave some of these young kids a chance to play and they got thrown out there in different situations. I thought Scotty Feser played extremely well, while some of the other young kids had a tougher time of it.
“Still, it was a 3-1 game going into the third period and their fourth goal was one I’m sure Bolton would love to have back. It kind of took us out of it.”
Pouliot finished with 37 saves. Oil Kings netminder Tristan Jarry blocked 27 shots.
The Rebels weren’t dwelling on the setback during the bus ride home.
“When we left Edmonton the message was that we’re starting a whole new year now. That’s our mindset,” said Sutter.
“We had a goal for ourselves in November of finishing in the top four (in the conference) and we accomplished that. But now the new season starts and you have to have new goals in place. Now more than ever, it is so important for everyone to just focus in on one game at a time.”
l The Rebels’ first-round playoff schedule:
Friday: Prince Albert at Red Deer, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday: Prince Albert at Red Deer, 7:30 p.m.; Tuesday, March 26: Red Deer at Prince Albert, 7 p.m.; Wednesday, March 27: Red Deer at Prince Albert, 7 p.m.; Friday, March 29 (if necessary): Prince Albert at Red Deer, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, March 31 (if necessary): Red Deer at Prince Albert, 7 p.m.; Tuesday, April 2 (if necessary): Prince Albert at Red Deer, 7 p.m.