They don’t know for sure who their next opponent will be, but for now the Red Deer Rebels are relaxing.
They deserve a break after completing a four-game Eastern Conference quarter-final sweep of the Prince Albert Raiders in hostile territory Wednesday. While four games does a long series make, all four were physical and — at times — bitter clashes.
In the end, the Raiders simply could not match the Rebels’ dogged determination and resiliency. Red Deer just refused to lose, despite being outplayed in the first period of each game at Prince Albert’s Art Hauser Centre.
The Rebels were the superior team in the final two frames of both Games 3 and 4.
The Raiders were a frustrated crew, too often beaten to the puck and then not able to solve — at least not often enough — netminder Patrik Bartosak when scoring opportunities arose.
Bartosak won the battle of the goaltenders, hands down, and was a big reason the Raiders’ power play was a paltry one-for-19 (5.3 per cent) in the series.
Red Deer’s power play wasn’t a whole lot better at two-for-15 (13.3 per cent), but both goals were big, and in fact Turner Elson’s man-advantage marker in Game 3 was the eventual winner in a 3-1 outcome.
The Rebels’ best players, GM/head coach Brent Sutter suggested on the eve of the series opener, would have to be front and centre in order for the club to succeed.
Well, the first line of Elson, Rhyse Dieno and Brooks Maxwell clearly out-performed the Raiders’ No. 1 unit of Mark McNeill, Leon Draisaitl and Mike Winther, and Mathew Dumba, Brady Gaudet and Haydn Fleury stood out on the Red Deer blueline, which as a whole was better than P.A.’s defensive corps.
The Rebels’ supporting cast often stepped into leading roles, with the likes of Conner Bleackley and Cody Thiel notching timely goals to keep in step with the Raiders’ second- to fourth-line skaters.
The bottom line is that the Rebels are moving on. They’ll likely meet the Hitmen in a semifinal which would start later next week in Calgary, where the Hitmen eliminated the Swift Current Broncos in their quarter-final set Thursday night, winning Game 5 by a 3-1 count.
The only other scenario would be Red Deer vs. Medicine Hat, but that would require the Kootenay Ice to rebound from a 3-1 deficit in games and upset the defending league champion Edmonton Oil Kings.
The Rebels would be underdogs against the Hitmen. But then, not many observers called them to sweep the Raiders.
H H H H H
If the Raiders were dejected following their quick exit, imagine the disappointment — and even disbelief — in the Saskatoon Blades’ dressing room following Wednesday’s 3-1 loss at Medicine Hat and the four-straight ouster of this year’s Memorial Cup hosts.
The Blades won’t play another game for 50 days, and that game will be their Memorial Cup opener.
The loss extended the Blades’ post-season losing streak to 12 games — three opening-round sweeps in three years.
“The playoffs are a different ball of wax,” Blades head coach and general manager Lorne Molleken told Daniel Nugent-Bowman of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix following Wednesday’s fourth loss. “We didn’t rise to the occasion.
“There’s a reason why you don’t succeed. That’s something that’s hampered us in the last three years in the playoffs. There’s a certain will to succeed. Medicine Hat played extremely well. They were the better team in this series. They deserved to win.”
The Blades were outscored 7-0 in the first period and 15-4 in the series.
“Their goals came on hard work from them beating them us in different situations. At this time of the year, you need to really make sure you’re sticking to the plan and executing and finishing,” added Molleken. “We didn’t do that on a consistent basis.”
Realizing the mood of disappointment and outright disgust that might exist with Blades fans , Molleken and team owner Jack Brodsky addressed the Saskatoon media during a Thursday press conference.
“For us as a team this was a season full of difference challenges and pressure,” said Molleken. “But at the same time I’m not going to stand in front of you and justify our (playoff) results.
“We got off to a slow start this year and that meant pressure on the group. Despite everything going on around us this year, we still believed that our hockey club was peaking at the right time and that we were in a great spot to have a long, successful run in the WHL playoffs.
“Looking ahead to the Memorial Cup, as a group we feel this (first-round exit) can be one of the building blocks in our season. The time off before the event is another challenge we face and we look forward to using it to our advantage. Once again, these aren’t ideal circumstances but we look forward to making the best of the adversity we’re facing and look to bring home a championship for our organization.
“That was the message to our players after the game last night. We built this team to win a championship.”
Brodsky shot down rumours that Molleken would be replaced as the Blades’ coach prior to the Memorial Cup.
“I’m not going to let a game or a series or a year be a measure of what this hockey club is about or what my life is about,” said Brodsky.
“I’m not talking about changes. I’m not going to talk about that today because the guy that’s behind the bench for our hockey club is my guy and I’ve got all the trust and respect in the world for him. Period.”