Home cooking didn’t agree with the Red Deer Rebels last season.
Clearly, that has to change in 2014-15, stressed GM/head coach Brent Sutter, who last winter too often suffered from his own bouts of indigestion at the Enmax Centrium.
Red Deer was an unimpressive 16-16-0-4 at home during the 2013-14 Western Hockey League campaign, as opposed to 19-16-1-0 on the road. With the Rebels hosting the Edmonton Oil Kings in their second-to-last preseason contest tonight at 7 p.m., there’s no time like the present to reverse that home-ice trend.
“Obviously that’s one thing we have to improve on this year, playing better at home,” Sutter said Thursday. “And I think with the maturity of the group, we will be better at home.”
Sutter is of the opinion that too many of his players were hampered by off-ice diversions last season.
“It’s a big step for some of those kids who come out of midget and even junior A hockey and into major junior hockey, and you can get caught up in the distractions away from the rink,” he said. “You can’t have that at this level. You have to be focused. You have to prepare yourself and be ready to play the game.
“I thought last year we struggled with that and it showed in our record at home. We need to be better at home and with the group we will be just due to the maturity level, just the fact these kids have a year of experience and understand the things we talked to them about at the end of last season. The focus and the preparation has been better this year. We have to play a certain way, and we have to establish that at home.”
The Rebels lost a pair of close preseason games two weeks ago, then posted 4-2 wins over the Tri-City Americans and Portland Winterhawks last weekend at Kennewick, Wash.
Sutter has liked his team’s approach and mannerisms right from the opening faceoff of the exhibition season.
“Our work ethic has been really good, that just has to continue,” said the Rebels boss, who fully anticipates no decline in energy output and positive attitude once the real season starts. “We have some really good players here and yet we were a young team last season,” he said. “Now that we’re a year older, our expectations are higher. We should all have higher expectations. What’s encouraging is the guys are playing like they expect a lot from themselves.
“They came back this year as a determined group. The conditioning level of the players is outstanding. Our practices have been high-level, fast-paced and intense, and that has all carried over into our games.”
The Rebels close out their six-game preseason slate Saturday at Stettler against the Medicine Hat Tigers.
“I want us to finish off these last two exhibition games on a positive note,” said Sutter. “For the most part we’ve been really good for the first four games and now it’s just a matter of carrying that on.”
Taz Burman will start in the Rebels net tonight, with Rylan Toth getting the call at Stettler.
With four skaters — defencemen Haydn Fleury (Carolina) and Kayle Doetzel (Toronto) and forwards Conner Bleackley (Colorado) and Wyatt Johnson (Anaheim) — attending NHL camps, all but one of the 21 roster players still in Red Deer will see action in both games this weekend.
Power forward Evan Polei is the lone exception. The 18-year-old endured a lacerated finger last weekend and is sporting stitches, but will be ready for Red Deer’s regular-season opener Sept. 19 against the visiting Kootenay Ice.