This was not the manner in which the Red Deer Rebels wanted to enter the Western Hockey League playoffs.
Just 24 hours after laying a 6-2 beating on the Edmonton Oil Kings at Rexall Place, the Rebels fell 3-2 in a rematch Saturday before 6,439 fans at the Enmax Centrium, the final regular-season game for both teams.
“We just weren’t sharp. We played with no flow, we weren’t in synch and there were a lot of terrible turnovers,” said Red Deer GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “Offensively we didn’t generate much and we weren’t good in our own zone. We weren’t close to how we played last night.”
Outshot 38-26 overall, the Rebels never held a lead although they did battle back to draw even on two occasions before Mads Eller notched what held up as the winning goal at 6:52 of the second period, busting down the right boards and beating Red Deer netminder Rylan Toth to the far side.
With the Oil Kings assessed three straight minor penalties during a 64-second span late in the game, the Rebels held a five-on-three advantage and then a six-on-three with Toth on the bench, but never gained control of the offensive zone long enough to create a serious scoring opportunity.
In the end, the visitors were deserving winners and after finishing fifth in the Central Division will now meet the Brandon Wheat Kings in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Rebels, who finished third in the Central, will hook up with the second-place Medicine Hat Tigers in a best-of-seven conference quarter-final with the first two games set for Saturday and Sunday in the southern Alberta city.
The Rebels were hoping to gain some momentum for the playoffs by closing out their regular season on a positive note. Now, they’ll have to regain their swagger with a hard week of practice.
“We have a lot of work to do this week, but you should have some form of identity by now, you’re 72 games into the season,” said Sutter. “Certainly it’s a little bit concerning that you don’t finish the season the way you should finish it.
“There were areas of our game tonight that weren’t where they need to be and that had to do with individuals not being focused and prepared.”
The Oil Kings opened the scoring 4:20 into the contest when Brett Pollock’s shot from the left faceoff circle glanced off Toth’s glove and into the net.
Presten Kopeck replied for the Rebels a mere 56 seconds later, capping a give-and-go with Brooks Maxwell with Oil Kings defenceman Marshall Donald serving a high sticking infraction.
From there, Davis Koch buried a third rebound at 7:02 to restore Edmonton’s lead and Adam Musil got the Rebels back on even terms late in the period, converting a corner pass from Maxwell while situated at the edge of the crease.
Eller then notched the early-second period winner and the visitors held the edge in play and a 25-19 advantage in shots over the final 40 minutes.
“Through the whole lineup it was just a lack of being mentally engaged in the game at the level we need to be right now,” said Sutter. “Obviously (the players) didn’t think the game was that important tonight to play that way. Unfortunately when that happens you get injuries and we got one of our better players hurt.”
Sutter was referring to Musil, who appeared to suffer an ankle injury and struggled to get off the ice. The extent of the ailment won’t be known until the second-year forward undergoes an MRI today,
On a positive note, captain Conner Bleackley returned to the lineup for the first time since he suffered a groin injury Feb. 6 that caused him to miss 19 games. Later, the Colorado Avalanche prospect said he didn’t feel any discomfort during the game.
“I felt all right. It wasn’t my best game but I wasn’t really sure what to expect coming in,” he said. “It was good to get that first game out of the way. I took a few hits and there were a few awkward falls, but I didn’t feel anything so that’s good news for me. Now I’m excited for the playoffs.”
Like his coach, Bleackley suggested that the Rebels weren’t ready to take on an Oil Kings team that was out for revenge.
“They came here obviously pretty hungry after last night,” said Bleackley. “We kind of embarrassed them in their own rink. We weren’t prepared for them and it’s not the way we wanted to end off the (regular) season, but at the same time we can’t dwell on it.
“We have Game 1 of the playoffs next weekend and we have a good week of hard work and practice to get ready for that.”
• Toth turned aside 35 shots while suffering his loss of the season while Edmonton netminder Patrick Dea made 24 saves . . . Kayle Doetzel was a multiple recipient as the Rebels individual awards were handed out prior to the contest. Doetzel picked up the top defenceman award and the Advocate players’ award. Meanwhile, Toth was honoured as rookie of the year, Maxwell garnered the most valuable player award, Evan Polei accepted the humanitarian award, Kopeck was recognized as the most under-rated player and Riley Sheen was honoured as the club’s top scorer . . . Neither Wyatt nor Reese Johnson were in the Red Deer lineup but both will be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs . . . While the Rebels failed to win a regular-season outing in Medicine Hat this winter, Sutter is convinced his team can taste success there in the post-season. “There were several years when we couldn’t win there during the regular season and then played very well in their building in the playoffs,” he said. The third and fourth games of the series will be played April 1 and 2 at the Centrium . . . The Rebels drew the Tigers when the Calgary Hitmen edged the visiting Kootenay Ice 3-2 Sunday to lock up first sport in the Central. The Hitmen will face the Ice in the first round of the playoffs.