If the last two home-ice games are any indication, Conner Bleackley has rediscovered his scoring touch.
The Red Deer Rebels captain turned in a second consecutive two-goal home-ice performance Thursday in a 6-2 WHL win over the Kamloops Blazers in front of a recorded gathering of 4,367 at the Enmax Centrium.
“I don’t know where it was, but I just told myself that I have to shoot a lot more with a guy like (Riley) Sheen on my line,” said Bleackley, who potted 29 goals last season and was then drafted by Colorado in the first round of June’s NHL entry draft, and ran this season’s total to 12 with Thursday’s output.
“He (Sheen) makes some plays that not many guys in this league can make, so I just have to get open and when he does get me the puck just shoot it. It’s worked out pretty good so far.”
The Rebels led 4-2 after two periods, then turned up the heat in the final frame, getting a power-play tally from Bleackley and an even-strength marker courtesy of Tyler Sandhu.
Bleackley pretty much sealed the deal when he beat Blazers netminder Cole Kehler with a high wrist shot from the faceoff circle, and Sandhu notched his ninth of the season when he converted a nifty drop pass from Brooks Maxwell with just 1:17 remaining.
“We certainly played with the pace we wanted to in the third,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “We did a really good job of not giving up a whole lot and keeping pucks behind their back end in their zone. We got some quality scoring opportunities and capitalized on a couple of them.”
The Rebels started fast, with Brett Cote firing a point shot past a screened Kehler a mere 16 seconds into the contest. Bleackley followed with his first of the evening eight minutes later, taking a behind-the-net feed from Sandhu and stepping into a snapshot.
The Blazers countered when Collin Shirley scored on a second rebound, but Adam Musil restored Red Deer’s two-goal lead before the period ended, lifting a bouncing puck past Kehler with Blazers defenceman Ryan Rehill in the penalty box.
“Our first period was really good, especially with our start,” said Sutter.
“We really wanted to have a good start here tonight. They’re a team that played last night (a 4-1 loss at Edmonton) and we hadn’t played since Saturday.”
Each team scored once in the middle frame, with Blazers’ top scorer Cole Ully connecting during a power play with a shot to the blocker side that Rebels netminder Rylan Toth never saw, and Grayson Pawlenchuk replying for the Rebels directly off a faceoff in the Kamloops end.
“We kind of played a little bit sloppy in the second but I liked our response in the third period,” said Bleackley. “We didn’t really give them anything and we capitalized on a power-play opportunity to get an insurance goal and then kind of shut it down from there.”
Added Sutter: “In the second we kind of took our foot off the pedal and then we got some momentum back near the end of the period and got going in the third. It was a great team effort. Everyone gave us what they had and we got some timely goals.”
The two power-play goals gave the Rebels a respectable 26 on the season. Red Deer was two-for-six with a man advantage and two-for-three on their penalty kill, the league’s second-best.
“I think our (power play) breakout was good tonight and once we got into the zone we moved the puck pretty well,” said Bleackley. “I still think we need to shoot more but it’s been going pretty well for us.”
The Rebels were minus the services of veteran defenceman Haydn Fleury, who is attending the Canadian national junior team selection camp in Toronto, but overall the back end didn’t miss a beat.
“Everyone stepped up and did a great job,” said Sutter. “We just have to keep the game simple, especially in our zone, and make plays stick to stick. If they’re not there, let’s get pucks out and get them 150 to 160 feet away from our net and get into a neutral-zone game instead of playing in our zone.
“For the most part I thought we did a pretty good job of that.”
• Rebels forward Presten Kopeck picked up three assists, while Sheen and Maxwell each contributed a pair of helpers . . . Toth was solid in the Rebels net, turning aside 30 shots. Kehler made 21 saves but had the tougher looks . . . The Rebels head out on a two-game road trip this morning. Red Deer is in Moose Jaw Saturday and then face the Wheat Kings Sunday in Brandon.