After six weeks of playoff action across the Canadian Hockey League, the Red Deer Rebels now lie in wait to see who will be their Memorial Cup opponents.
In the Ontario Hockey League, the London Knights and Niagara Ice Dogs start their final series on Thursday. In the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the series between the Shawinigan Cataractes and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies starts on Wednesday.
And in the Western Hockey League, the Seattle Thunderbirds and Brandon Wheat Kings start their series on Friday.
The Rebels lost in five games to the Wheat Kings in the WHL Eastern Conference Final.
Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter made good on his promise to have two practices each day in the lead up to the Memorial Cup. The team needs to stay in game shape while they wait for the tournament to start.
“It’s two-a-days now, getting in shape and getting prepared,” said Rebels forward Evan Polei. “There’s lots of stuff in practice we need to work on.
“We said at the beginning of the year the Memorial Cup is a long ways away, but now it’s only three weeks away.”
Hosted by Red Deer, the Memorial Cup will be held from May 19 to 29 with the league champions from the WHL, OHL and QMJHL squaring off with the Rebels in a tournament.
Defenceman Haydn Fleury said the team should be a confident group heading into the Memorial Cup, adding they think they can beat whoever comes out of the WHL final.
Despite losing in five games to the Wheat Kings, Fleury believes the Rebels can compete with them or the Seattle Thunderbirds.
“(The Wheat Kings) mindset was different from ours, I think,” said Fleury. “They wanted that series over early, they didn’t want a long series and they were pressing early. We didn’t have that push right from Game 1. We played well at times, we played well enough to win Games 1 and 2 but bounces went their way.
“We came back on home ice and played a good game, but we let our foot off the pedal in Game 4 and we couldn’t get back into it.”
But there are several lessons to take out of the Eastern Conference Final loss to the Wheat Kings, who outplayed the Rebels at crunch time.
“We have to play an entire 60 minutes, we can’t take a shift off,” said Polei. “We’ve proved we can beat (Brandon Wheat Kings) in Game 3 at home, they’re definitely a beatable team. If we turn over pucks and give them opportunities, they’re going to bury us.”
Notably, Wheat Kings forward Nolan Patrick had three goals and two assists in Game 5, a 5-2 loss for the Rebels.
As good as the Wheat Kings were, the Rebels believe their mistakes — giveaways and coverage breakdowns — also played a role. Those mistakes can be worked on over the next three weeks.
“It was managing our mistakes and almost making the right mistake instead of the wrong one, but we made too many that cost us in games and they made us pay,” said Fleury.
Fleury characterized the Calgary Hitmen series as a physical affair, the Regina Pats series as a speedy and skilled series and the Brandon team was an amalgamation of the two.
The first game of the Memorial Cup is on May 20 at 6 p.m. at the Centrium. It will feature the Rebels playing the winner of the OHL.