The Red Deer Rebels have their eyes on the prize.
For the Rebels, that would be fourth place in the WHL Eastern Conference, a position they now hold by a four-point margin over the Prince Albert Raiders.
The Rebels increased their lead over the Raiders with Tuesday’s 6-4 win over the Kootenay Ice before 4,183 fans at the Centrium and a 6-3 loss by Prince Albert at Swift Current.
“This is a big win, first and foremost,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “Obviously, we’re shooting for a position we want to be in and that’s something we have to continue to strive for — to stay in the top four.
“To do that, we have to continue to win games.”
The Rebels finally shook the visitors with a pair of late second-period goals, with Mathew Dumba completing a nifty passing play that included Turner Elson and Rhyse Dieno, and Tyson Ness notching his second of the evening and the eventual winner.
“Every time we scored they came right back with a goal,” said Sutter.
That was the case for the first half of the contest, as goals by Matt Bellerive, Brooks Maxwell and Ness were countered by Ice markers from Jaedon Descheneau, Levi Cable and Joey Leach.
But Dumba cruised into the low shot and rifled a shot past Kootenay netminder Mackenzie Skapski at 14:12 of the middle frame, and Ness tipped home a point shot by Brady Gaudet at 17:53 to give the Rebels some breathing room.
Cody Thiel all but sealed the deal with his fourth of the season at 13:18 of the third period, beating Ice back-up Wyatt Hoflin with a sharp-angle shot. Hoflin, who replaced Skapski at the start of the third period, got a piece of the puck, but it fell in behind him.
Descheneau closed out the scoring with his second of the evening — a power-play tally at 17:58 — stepping around Rebels netminder Patrik Bartosak from close range and reaching in to tuck the puck home while actually behind the net.
Ness had a glorious opportunity to record a hat trick in the final minute when he broke in over the Kootenay blueline and looked at an empty net with Hoflin on the bench in favour of an extra attacker. But Ness delayed and was caught from behind, a gaffe that earned him some good-natured shots from his teammates following the game.
“They’re really giving it to me in there (locker room),” said Ness. “It turned out that there was a guy (Ice defender) behind me. I just wanted to make sure (of the goal) and I held on too long.”
Still, he was a major contributor on a night when the Rebels kept their feet moving and simply outworked and wore down their guests.
“It feels good to get back on the scoresheet,” said Ness, who potted his 14th and 15th goals of the season. “A lot of guys contributed tonight. It was a good night for everyone.
“Everyone kept going, no one took their foot off the gas. We just kept going and played a strong 60 minutes.”
While he was grateful for the end result, Sutter wasn’t overly tickled with his club’s defensive play.
“At times tonight we weren’t as sharp as we need to be, we were sloppy at times,” said the Rebels bench boss. “We also took a couple of bad penalties in the offensive zone.
“But we were good in other ways. We created some offence and scored six goals and we were good in the neutral zone, too. But we have to be a little tighter in the defensive zone, we have to make sure at this time of the year that we defend the right way and do the right things without the puck.
“All in all, I’m happy with the two points but we need to continue to push and get better.”
Bartosak, who was particularly sharp in the third period, finished with 30 saves in the Red Deer net. Skapski stopped 25 of 30 shots before being replaced by Hoflin, who blocked 12 of the 13 he faced.
The Rebels, who have five regular-season games remaining, are in Lethbridge tonight and then entertain the Hurricanes Friday in the second half of a home-and-home set.
Red Deer will conclude the regular season with a visit to Calgary Sunday and a home-and-home with the Edmonton Oil Kings March 17 and 18.
• Advocate’s three stars: (1) Ness . . . Two-goal performance by the Red Deer forward; (2) Rhyse Dieno . . . Rebels winger was all over the ice and picked up three assists; (3) Descheneau . . . Ice forward tallied twice, his second being of highlight-reel quality.