It was important to Brent Sutter that his Red Deer Rustlers — err, Rebels — show their best stuff before a large gathering Saturday at the Centrium.
Their 4-2 come-from-behind Western Hockey League victory over the Prince Albert Raiders was a bonus.
Adorned in throwback Red Deer Rustlers jerseys, the Rebels fired three unanswered third-period goals to move two points clear of the Raiders in the battle for fourth spot in the Eastern Conference. Among the 6,554 spectators were numerous Rustlers alumni — players and coaches — dating back to the early days of the junior A franchise, which was born in 1967.
“Obviously it was a great day to honour the Rustlers and their legacy here in the city and Central Alberta,” said Rebels GM/head coach Sutter. “To get two points too is huge for ourselves. This is a big win for us.”
Down 2-1 after 40 minutes, the Rustlers pulled even when Matt Bellerive connected 7:29 into the final frame, finishing a nifty three-way passing play that involved Scott Feser and Wyatt Johnson.
Rhyse Dieno potted the eventual winner just over six minutes later, taking a feed from Brooks Maxwell, stepping around a Raiders defenceman and beating netminder Luke Siemens. Turner Elson added a short-handed, empty-net goal at 18:59, the marker set up by Mathew Dumba’s block of a shot in the Rebels zone.
Davis Vandane notched a late first-period goal for the visitors and Jayden Hart increased the margin with a power-play tally at 8:19 of the second period. The Rebels ignited their rally with a power-play goal of their own at the 12- minute mark, defenceman Haydn Fleury moving in from the point and catching the far corner.
“That was a big power-play goal, it got us right back in it,” said Sutter. “Both goalies (Siemens and Red Deer’s Patrik Bartosak) played well tonight, it’s not like there weren’t scoring opportunities. There was plenty of chances, we just weren’t capitalizing. But we kept telling ourselves we have to score to win and we kept getting pucks to the net.”
Sutter reminded his players during the second intermission that it was important to establish themselves on home ice.
“We’ve been working hard at that and there’s not a better way to establish yourself than being down in the third period in your own building and going out there and getting a win,” said the Rebels bench boss.
“We knew we would have to score some goals to do that, but also shut down a very good hockey team. Our details, especially in the third period, were very good. We didn’t have any turnovers. We were really good in the third and smart in how we played the game.”
And to pull out the victory in Rustlers jerseys on a special day was extra sweet.
“It was pretty neat seeing some of the guys. Some of them I haven’t seen since I was 20 years old, and that’s five years ago,” Sutter joked. “All the (former players) were grateful for this, it had never been done for the Rustlers. It was a pretty special evening, for sure.”
Sutter, who sported the same Rustlers jersey when he led the team to the Canadian championship in 1980, has never met many of the players who were in Red Deer before he arrived. He acquainted himself with a few Saturday.
“It was pretty cool to see and meet some of these guys,” said Sutter. “They are guys who when I came to play with the Rustlers, I had only read about them. There were guys here who are in their 60s and 70s and others who are in their 30s now. It was a great day for our community and a great day for Central Alberta.”
Sutter admitted that there was a group that wondered why he never re-named the Rebels as the Rustlers when he purchased the WHL team in 1999.
“The Rustlers name has its own legacy here,” he said. “The Rustlers teams forged their own identities in Red Deer and deserve to have their own legacy. To keep the Rebels name was the right thing to do. The Rustlers are the Rustlers.”