Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter isn’t making any outrageous demands of his top players.
He simply wants his best to be his best. All of them.
Currently, import forwards Michael Spacek (5g,7a) and Ivan Nikolishin (4-7) sit one-two among Rebels scorers with 12 and 11 points, respectively. From there, the offensive production drops off to the five points collected by defenceman Colton Bobyk (2-3) and Presten Kopeck (1-4).
The Rebels have also surrendered 17 goals over the last four games, so there’s some heaving lifting that has to be done in that department, as well.
“We need to get some guys playing a little better,” Sutter said Monday morning as the team prepared to head west on a four-game Western Hockey League road trip starting tonight at Kamloops.
“Our offence has dropped off and we’ve given up too many goals in our last four games. We have to tighten up defensively.”
Sutter detected a turn-around of sorts in Saturday’s 5-4 shootout win over the visiting Calgary Hitmen.
“Last night we had the puck more, our puck possession time was better than in the two previous games,” he said. “But when you go on the road and are playing four (games) in five nights, you have to play the game the right way and make sure you keep things tight.
“But there are certain guys who have to get going offensively for us. They are key players, older players who play in our top nine forwards. And yet we have to be careful because we don’t want them cheating, either. They just have to get to those scoring areas in the offensive zone.”
Sutter wasn’t throwing any names around, but Conner Bleackley has garnered just a goal and an assist in five outings and Wyatt Johnson, who has been in and out of the top six, has just a single helper in seven games.
On another note, the Rebels boarded the team bus Monday morning with momentum on their side following their shootout conquest of the Hitmen, a result that halted a two-game losing streak and improved the team’s record to 5-2.
“It was a heck of a game with a bit of everything,” said Sutter. “Both teams played hard. There were skilled plays and lots of hits. It was a very intense game.”
It was also a game that got away from the Rebels in the third period. Down 3-1 after 40 minutes, the Hitmen got early third-period goals from Jordy Stallard and Jake Bean (power play) and jumped ahead of their hosts when Taylor Sandheim connected at 12:15.
Then, with Hitmen defenceman Michael Zipp serving a delay of game infraction, Sutter pulled netminder Rylan Toth to give his squad a two-man advantage, a move that paid off when Grayson Pawlenchuk connected on a one-timer at 19:23 to pull the Rebels even.
Following an exciting but scoreless five-minute three-on-three overtime frame, Nikolishin potted the lone goal of the ensuing shootout. Toth, who finished with 27 saves through 65 minutes, denied all three Calgary shooters — Radel Fazleev, Bean and Layne Bensmiller.
“We needed a positive response after last two games because we didn’t play well in Lethbridge (5-2 loss last Tuesday) and although we had our moments in Calgary (in a 4-1 setback Friday), there were stretches where we weren’t very good,” said Sutter.
“It was important to get somewhat back to how we want to play and how we have to play.”
The Rebels led 2-0 after one period on goals from Lane Pederson, his first of the season, and Evan Polei, his third. Bean slashed the deficit in half at 4:54 of the second period when his point shot beat Toth through a crowd a mere one second after a tripping call on Pawlenchuk had expired.
Haydn Fleury, from the left faceoff circle, ripped a wrist shot past Hitmen netminder Lasse Petersen at 12:17 of the period and the Rebels were seemingly in good shape with a two-goal cushion after 40 minutes.
“We played pretty well for two periods, then gave up two quick goals in the third,” said Sutter. “Outside of that five minutes, I thought we played a pretty good game.
“We gave up another goal later in the third, but we got a break by them taking a penalty late in the game and we were able to capitalize on it. Then we got into a three-on-three not knowing what was going to happen, expect there was going to be scoring chances.
“It was great for our fans. There’s not a lot of defensive focus with that much open ice. You’re just trying to handle what’s coming at you.”
Petersen made 15 saves before being replaced at the start of the third period by Kyle Dumba, the younger brother of former Rebels defenceman Mathew. Dumba stopped 13 of the 14 shots he faced over the final 25 minutes.
The Rebels take on the Kelowna Rockets Wednesday, then conclude the road trip with stops in Victoria and Vancouver Friday and Satur