Obviously the Red Deer Rebels are not yet in mid-season form.
But if the 2014-15 Western Hockey League regular season started tomorrow, GM/head coach Brent Sutter would feel comfortable with taking the current crew into battle.
“The kids played hard during the weekend. I’m really liking what I’m seeing so far . . . they’re playing the right way,” Sutter said Sunday, less than 24 hours following his team’s 4-2 win over the Portland Winterhawks in the Tri-City Americans preseason tournament at Kennewick, Wash.
“Young and old alike, they’re playing as a team. Age is irrelevant,” Sutter continued. “Specialty teams is something we have to continue to work on, but five-on-five I have no complaints.”
One night after posting a 4-2 victory over the host Americans, the Rebels never trailed in their match with the defending Western Conference champion Winterhawks. Cole Chorney opened the scoring with a power-play tally 8:04 into the contest and Presten Kopeck made it 2-0 with a goal 10 minutes later.
Paul Bittner, expected to go high in next year’s NHL entry draft, got the ‘Hawks on the board at 6:54 of the middle frame, but Adam Musil — with his second goal and team-leading fifth point in four exhibition outings — responded for Red Deer at 9:21, and Wyatt Johnson, with his third of the preseason, increased the margin to 4-1 just under five minutes later.
Portland rookie Skyler McKenzie, who appeared in five WHL games last season, notched the lone goal of the third period, beating Rebels netminder Taz Burman at the 17-minute mark.
The Rebels were minus the services of their top forward and best defenceman in Conner Bleackley and Haydn Fleury, as well as veteran Kayle Doetzel, another top-four rearguard. None of the three have appeared in preseason play this fall.
The Winterhawks, meanwhile, were without dynamic forwards Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand.
“It was similar to Saturday’s game,” said Sutter, in regards to the number of veterans in the respective Red Deer/Tri-City lineups.
The Rebels boss was pleased with the play and continued development of defenceman Josh Mahura and forward Jeff de Wit, the two 16-year-olds all but pencilled into the Rebels lineup for the upcoming campaign. Mahura was a plus-2 Saturday and de Wit a plus-1 before leaving the game with an injury.
“Jeff got banged up and missed the second half of the game, but he’ll be all right,” said Sutter. “It’s going to take time with these young players, including the younger guys we had last season. But if you’re patient you see the results we’re seeing now.
“The younger guys have been really responsible in how they’re playing and we’re seeing good leadership from our older players. It’s fun when your team is playing like that . . . it’s fun for everybody.”
After outplaying and outshooting the Americans 37-19 Friday, the Rebels were outshot 27-24 by Portland. Burman made 25 saves while going the distance in the Red Deer net, while Adin Hill stopped eight of 11 shots and Michael Bullion blocked 12 of 13 for the ‘Hawks.
“Both of our goalies played well,” said Sutter, who played Rylan Toth against Tri-City. “Both guys looked comfortable.”
Saturday’s outing featured a scrap between Rebels second-year winger Evan Polei and Portland’s Adam De Champlain. The tilt was back-and-forth until Polei handed a heavy punch that dropped the Winterhawks’ overage forward.
“Evan doesn’t know his own strength,” said Sutter. “He’s strong like a man and he’s very effective when he keeps his emotion and intensity up. He’s been a force with his body his fall and how he plays a power forward game, and he’s going to be a real good player for us.”
The Rebels evened their preseason record at 2-2 following a pair of narrow losses the previous weekend.
“When you’re playing responsibly and caring about each other it makes it a lot more enjoyable even when you don’t have success,” said Sutter. “The guys have been playing as a team and that’s certainly encouraging.”
The Rebels close out their preseason schedule Friday and Saturday, taking on the Edmonton Oil Kings at the Enmax Centrium and the Medicine Hat Tigers in Stettler.
• Five Red Deer players — Bleackley (Colorado), Fleury (Carolina), Johnson (Anaheim), Polei (St. Louis) and Doetzel (Toronto) — leave for NHL camps this week . . . Three veterans trail Musil by a single point in Rebels preseason scoring, as Johnson has three goals and one assist in two outings, defenceman Nick Charif has picked up four assists in four games and forward Brooks Maxwell has four helpers in two games . . . The Rebels open their regular-season schedule Sept. 19 at home against the Kootenay Ice.