Over their five-game winning streak the Red Deer Rebels talked about being ready to play every time out and being at the top of their game.
They forgot all about that Monday as they staggered out of the gate, fell behind 3-0 in the first period, and eventually dropped a 4-3 decision to the Brandon Wheat Kings in Western Hockey League action before 4,772 fans at the Centrium.
The Rebels’ minds, including that of goaltender Patrik Bartosak, were elsewhere as they fell behind 30 seconds into the game when Tyler Coulter picked up a rebound and shovelled it in off Bartosak’s pad from a sharp angle.
Ryan Pulock made it 2-0 at 3:05 when his long, unscreened shot, went through Bartosak and trickled over the line then Tim McGauley connected at 7:14 when he was allowed to waltz in alone off the left wing.
Meanwhile the Rebels did little, managing just three harmless shots. Their only good chance was a shot off the post by Lucas Sutter when it was still 1-0.
“We just talked about that, our first period wasn’t good enough,” said Rebels associate coach Jeff Truitt, after leaving the dressing room following the game. “We dug ourselves a hole we couldn’t get out of. We responded well in the second and third periods, but you have to be prepared to play from the start.
“The second half of the season points are difficult to come by and we had a head-to-head battle with a team we’re trying to catch and maybe leapfrog if we had the opportunity, but it was an opportunity missed.”
The loss, coupled with the Prince Albert Raiders 4-0 win over the Regina Pats, dropped the Rebels, 19-17-0-2, into ninth place in the Eastern Division, one point back of the Kootenay Ice, who lost 4-1 to Calgary. The Raiders and Pats are two points ahead of Red Deer while Brandon moved into fifth with a 20-15-3-0 record, three points ahead of the Rebels.
Truitt wasn’t about to make any excuses for the slow start.
“There never is an excuse,” he said. “We have to be prepared as players to answer the bell. We have to understand the challenges. We answered the bell against Calgary and Edmonton and here we were in our building and didn’t. There was no excuse for it.”
What the Rebels did do was storm out of the gate to open the second period with Connor Bleackley scoring his 19th of the season, while on the power play, 26 seconds in. Wyatt Johnson redirected a Sutter pass to make it 3-2 at 9:13, only to see Richard Nejezchleb make it 4-2 at 14:08, as he backhanded in a rebound into the open side.
Matt Bellerive, playing his first game after returning from the injury list, got the Rebels back into it at 18:16.
However, the Wheat Kings were able to settle down following the wide-open second period and controlled most of the play in a scoreless third period.
“In the third period we regained our composure after that second period and did a good job of limiting their chances,” said Wheat Kings assistant coach David Anning, who also liked the team’s start.
“We came out of the gate ready to play and I was impressed with the way we handled ourselves in that first 20 minutes,” he said. “We limited their chances and time in our end. It was much needed after what happened in our last game in Regina (an 8-4 loss).”
The Rebels managed just six shots in the third period, two of them while shorthanded late. In fact they were the team’s best two scoring chances against Brandon goaltender Jordan Papirny in the period.
While the Rebels weren’t at the top of their game, their penalty killing was. They held the Wheat Kings, who were tied for first in the league on the power play, off the board on all six shorthanded situations.
“That was a credit to our penalty killers and Patty (Bartosak),” said Truitt. “They have some guys who can really fire the puck, but we did a good job of picking the right times to pressure them and while they had a few backdoor looks, overall we limited their chances. We answered the bell as a unit. Penalty killing is working hard and in that aspect we got the job done.”
• The Wheat Kings finished with 35 shots on Bartosak while the Rebels had 21 on Papirny . . . Bleackley’s goal gives him a six-game point scoring streak . . . Rebels still have Evan Polei, Brooks Maxwell, Presten Kopeck and Christian Stockl out injured while Dominik Volek is with the Czech Republic at the World Juniors, Kirk Bear was ill and Adam Musil and Meyer Nell are at the World U17 Challenge . . . Rebels added Jeff de Wit, up from the Red Deer Optimist Chiefs, for the game . . . Rebels return to action Friday when they host the Seattle Thunderbirds at 7 p.m. . . . They host the Moose Jaw Warriors Sunday at 5 p.m.