The Red Deer Rebels have been rocketing up the Western Hockey League charts in recent weeks.
The Kelowna Rockets have been near or at the top of the league all season, thus setting up a genuine measuring-gauge game for the Rebels tonight at the Centrium.
While the Rebels have been hot, currently enjoying a 7-0-0-1 run in their last eight games and with just one regulation-time loss in their last 10, they are still 15 points back of the league-leading Rockets.
Red Deer is looking more and more like a genuine contender, while Kelowna has been in that category from Day 1. The size of the gap between the two clubs will be exposed during tonight’s clash.
“We’ve strung together a pretty good stretch and tomorrow night’s game should be really exciting,” Red Deer captain Conner Bleackley said Monday. “Kelowna is one of the top teams in the CHL, but we beat Brandon (the Wheat Kings trail the Rockets by a single point for the overall league lead) a couple of weeks ago and I know everyone is really looking forward to the match-up tomorrow night. It’s going to be a real good game.”
The Rockets downed the Rebels 6-3 in their first meeting of the season — Dec. 17 at the Centrium — by taking advantage of Red Deer defensive miscues. The Rebels weren’t necessarily outplayed that night, outshooting their guests 28-24, but were repeatedly denied by Rockets netminder Jackson Whistle.
However, the visitors were minus the services of top-flight defencemen Madison Bowey and Josh Morrissey — both with Team Canada at the world junior championship — during their last stop at the Centrium, as well as Leon Draisaitl, who was reassigned by the Edmonton Oilers to the Prince Albert Raiders earlier this month and ultimately traded to Kelowna.
“We got down 3-0 that night and then came back (to knot the game at 3-3),” said Bleackley. “It was a bit of a different game being right before Christmas and with some world junior guys gone.
“I’m expecting a bit different game tomorrow with them having Morrissey, Bowey, Draisaitl and a lot of good players. But I think we’re right there with them as far as depth. In fact, I think that’s where we kind of have the advantage.”
To experience success against the high-octane Rockets, the Rebels will have to be disciplined defensively and opportunistic while skating in the other direction. An all-out, start-to-finish effort will be required, as Bleackley noted.
“In the last game with Kelowna, any time we had a turnover or made a mistake they capitalized on it, so playing a full 60 minutes, getting pucks to the net and limiting our mistakes is going to be huge because they have that high-powered offence that will make you pay,” he said.
Bleackley agreed that the Rebels will be better served by paying attention to their own details than wondering what the Rockets will bring.
“That’s kind of what we’ve been doing lately, we really haven’t changed our approach from game to game,” he said. “To us it’s just a matter of doing things over and over for 60 minutes.
“There’s been a few games where we haven’t quite played a full 60, but it’s been more than good enough to win. But playing a full 60 minutes tomorrow night is going to be the biggest key.”
The Rebels will close out a six-game homestand Friday and Saturday against the Edmonton Oil Kings and Prince Albert Raiders, then will head west next week for games in Kamloops, Vancouver and Victoria.