The Red Deer Rebels headed west this morning knowing that bringing nothing less than their A-game will suffice during a crucial, three-stop trip.
But then, what else is new?
“It’s a big trip, but every game is big at this time of the season no matter if it’s at home or on the road,” Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter said Monday from Las Vegas, where he’s attending Western Hockey League meetings.
“You have to focus in on every game and stay very much engaged in that game, and when it’s over get ready for the next one because they happen very quickly.”
The Rebels open a three-game jaunt Wednesday versus the Prince George Cougars, who took advantage of their lacklustre hosts to prevail 3-1 Jan. 19 at the Centrium.
“We can’t have games where we don’t give ourselves a chance to win,” said Sutter, looking back at the earlier meeting with the Cougars but still stinging from last Friday’s 3-2 loss at Lethbridge.
“That’s what’s disappointing about the game in Lethbridge — that we played pretty darn well yet made two mental mistakes in the last seven minutes that you just can’t make this time of the year,” he added. “Everyone is playing for the same reason as we are, so every game is tight.”
The Rebels ran off nine straight wins after Sutter replaced Jesse Wallin behind the bench in mid-November, but have ridden a momentum roller-coaster since. The club is a so-so 4-4-2 in its last 10 outings, but Sutter is taking the glass-half-full approach when looking back at what has transpired over the last two and a half months.
“We’re six games over .500, we’re sitting in fourth place in the (Eastern) conference and we’re in a position that every game is a big game for us, every game is like playoff hockey for us now,” he said.
“More importantly, for me, I’ve been able to get a real good feel for what we have on the team and where we are with our staff. I’ve been able to see what (associate coach Jeff Truitt) brings to the table. It’s important that I have a good feel on the group and it’s important for Jeff as well.”
The evaluations have as much to do with the future as the present, especially if Sutter steps aside following the season to focus on his GM duties.
“I’m hoping that we’ll be able to determine what type of coach we need moving forward, where we’re at with our team, the type of team we have . . . just so many different things,” he said.
“We as a coaching staff need to get a good feel for the group and having Jeff’s insight is really important.
“There are still some things we need to add to the team, no question, but it’s not going to happen overnight. That being said, the important thing right now is that the older players be more responsible, more accountable. Things have to be on their shoulders.
“I’ve challenged them. I’ve been hard on our older group, challenging them to be better than the other team’s older players. Those guys have to make our young players better.”
Forward Joel Hamilton, who sat out the last two games with an upper body injury, has been cleared to play and will be in the Rebels lineup tonight. The Rebels are in Seattle Friday to take on the Thunderbirds, then conclude their trip with a Saturday date with the Kamloops Blazers.