The key to beating the high-powered Kelowna Rockets is seemingly obvious — flex your own offensive muscles and outscore them.
The Red Deer Rebels did just that Saturday night in front of 5,507 spectators at the Enmax Centrium, but GM/head coach Brent Sutter had to remind his troops following their 7-4 WHL victory that there’s more, much more, to the game than turning on the red light.
“We were opportunistic on our (scoring) chances, but I wasn’t particularly pleased with the way we played,” said Sutter, whose squad buried four second-period goals en route to running their record to 4-0. “We made a lot of soft plays, certain guys more than others. I just thought we were too casual in our own zone. Our defensive play wasn’t very good.”
The Rebels led 2-1 after one period on a pair of goals by Evan Polei, then outscored their guests 4-1 while dominating the middle frame.
But the Rockets turned it up in the third and closed the gap to 6-4 on goals by Calvin Thurkauf, off a Red Deer turnover a mere 13 seconds in, and Justin Kirkland at 16:39. Rebels overage forward Presten Kopeck sealed the deal with a late empty-net marker at 17:27.
“We don’t want to have bad habits, we have to make sure we stay on our game and stay intense and play hard,” said Sutter.
“We have skill, but as we’ve talked to the players about, our work ethic and our commitment to playing well without the puck and doing all the little things the right way allows our skill to be enhanced.
“For probably two thirds of the game tonight it was the other way around, where we relied on trying to making those skilled, soft plays, and our work ethic wasn’t where it needed to be.”
The Rockets struck first, with Tyson Baillie potting a power play marker at 8:36 of the opening frame. It provided the visitors with their only lead of the contest, as Polei replied with a goalmouth deflection of a Brandon Hagel pass, and just 18 seconds later converted another nifty feed from Hagel, beating Kelowna netminder Michael Herringer with a high shot from close range.
Polei later engaged Rod Southam in a feisty toe-to-toe from which he emerged with a decision, and fell just a single assist short of the legendary ‘Gordie Howe hat trick’. The big winger insisted he was in search of the real thing.
“I couldn’t get the third goal,” he quipped.
The Rebels, who pelted Herringer with 19 second-period shots, upped their lead to 3-1 when Michael Spacek connected with his fifth of the season. Kole Lind answered back for the Rockets roughly five minutes later, but the Rebels restored their two-goal cushion in short order as Grayson Pawlenchuk grabbed a clearing pass from Wyatt Johnson, busted down the right wing and wired a shot that beat Herringer high to the far side.
From there, Austin Pratt notched his first-ever WHL regular-season goal, cashing a rebound from the edge of the crease, and defenceman Colton Bobyk blasted a power-play volley past Herringer to give the Rebels a comfortable four-goal advantage.
“I thought we played hard pretty much the whole night, it was just a couple of bad bounces there,” said Rockets star forward and Arizona Coyotes first-round draft pick Nick Merkley, who was held pointless.
“We can take some positive out of the third, for sure, but we need a 60-minute effort moving forward.”
Polei, like his head coach, wasn’t tickled with the Rebels’ final frame.
“We have to be more ready to go in the third period,” he said. “That’s a good team that comes out and plays their balls off every night. They worked hard in that third period.
“They (Rockets) have outshot and outscored every team they’ve played in the third period. We have to know that when we’re up in the third period we have to take it to teams and bury them.”
Polei’s goals were his first and second of the season.
“It felt good to get that first one out of the way, it kind of set me up for the rest of the game,” he said. “I felt good. I felt like I had time with the puck, that I could make plays, could pass the puck and had time to shoot and skate.”
Each team managed 38 shots and although Herringer looked a little unsteady on perhaps a couple of goals, he kept the game from getting out of hand in the second period with splendid saves on Lane Pederson and Wyatt Johnson and a brilliant diving glove stab on Kopeck.
Kirkland’s late goal was one that Rebels netminder Rylan Toth would have liked back, but he was otherwise excellent. Included among his stops was a breakaway save on Merkley.
In the end, the Rebels were the better team on the scoresheet.
“We were able to score seven goals and that’s certainly a positive. We were able to win the hockey game and that’s a positive,” said Sutter. “But again, we don’t want to be a team that has bad habits and we have things we have to continue to work on.”
• Rebels veteran defenceman Haydn Fleury was reassigned by the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday and will be in the lineup when Red Deer travels to Lethbridge Tuesday to face the Hurricanes.
His return is particularly timely with Josh Mahura lost for five to six months with a significant knee injury he suffered in the Rebels’ season-opener Sept. 26. Mahura was scheduled to see a doctor in Calgary this morning and will undergo surgery with the next week to 10 days.