The Red Deer Rebels looked like the total package Saturday night at the Enmax Centrium, a package complete with fancy wrap and tied with bows.
All facets of the Rebels game were clicking as the host club romped to a 7-1 victory over the Kootenay Ice before a recorded gathering of 5,056. The home club dominated all but the first 10 minutes of the middle frame while improving to 2-1-0-0 just over a week into the Western Hockey League season.
Red Deer was up 2-0 just four minutes into the contest as Grayson Pawlenchuk beat Ice netminder Wyatt Hoflin with a backhand through the five-hole and Meyer Nell gathered a bounce off the end boards and one-timed the puck into a gaping cage.
“We certainly had a real good start, that was huge,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “We played the same opponent last Friday (in a 5-3 loss) and never had the outcome we wanted even though we played well.
“Tonight we just did a lot of good things, our details were very good. It’s early in the year but there’s a certain way we want to play. We have to be a four-line team and we want to use our defencemen. When you get everyone engaged, everyone involved, its a lot easier to use your bench that way because you can rely on everybody.”
The Rebels added another goal very late in the opening period, as Evan Polei cleanly won a faceoff in the Kootenay end with eight seconds remaining. The puck came back to Conner Bleackley in the low slot and the Red Deer captain beat Hoflin with a quick shot low to the corner.
The Rebels held an 18-3 advantage in shots through the first 20 minutes and while it appeared to be — and ultimately was — game, set and match at that point, Sutter reminded his troops at the intermission that the visitors would be a tougher opponent in the second period, and they were during the first half of the frame.
“The message to our guys was ‘let’s not get off our game’,” said Sutter. “I knew they (Ice) were going to come out and play different in the second period, which they did.
“I thought at times in the second we got maybe a little careless with the puck, where we had some turnovers when we weren’t strong on pucks and allowed them to keep pucks in the zone. After the timeout we regrouped and played better in the last 10 minutes of the period. We got back more to how we played in the first period.”
Following a scoreless middle stanza, the Rebels struck four times in the final 20 minutes, Presten Kopeck igniting the spark with the club’s first power-play marker of the season 1:20 into the period.
Wyatt Johnson connected just over two minutes later — converting a perfect goalmouth feed from Bleackley — and Scott Feser made it a 6-0 game at 7:22 after stepping out of the penalty box, taking a stretch pass from Cole Chorney and breaking in alone on Ice back-up goalie Keelan Williams, who replaced Hoflin following Johnson’s goal.
Hoflin stopped 26 of the 31 shots he faced and Williams finished with seven saves. At the other end, Rebels rookie Rylan Toth faced only 18 shots and had his shutout bid ruined when third-year Ice forward Kyle O’Connor snapped home a centering pass from Ryan Chynoweth at 7:37.
“The important thing in a game like this is that your goalie keep his focus,” said Sutter. “We did a good job of keeping things out of the middle of the ice in our zone. We only gave up three shots in the first period but there was one he (Toth) had to be sharp on, and then he kept his focus.
“That was something that Taylor (Rebels goalie coach Dakers) talked to him about between periods, making sure that he didn’t get distracted because he hadn’t had a lot of work. That’s part of developing yourself as a goalie on the mental side of the game. You know your team doesn’t want to be giving up a ton of shots, so you have to be mentally tough.”
Kopeck potted his second of the night — a short-handed tally — a mere 46 seconds following the lone Kootenay marker, scoring on a wrap-around when Williams misplayed the puck.
“This was a big stepping stone for us,” said Kopeck. “We played a full team game and beat one of the best teams in the league last week (4-1 win over the host Calgary Hitmen Sept. 20) and we knew we had to build off of that.
“We knew we had to come into this game ready to go and we got a big two points.”
Kopeck was selected as the Advocate’s first star of the game, based partly on his two-goal performance but more for his hustle and inspired play.
“I want to be that physical guy playing with energy, a guy who can set an example for our younger players and our older guys too,” he said. “With me, I’m always going to come and compete 110 per cent every game. I did that tonight and we got rewarded as a team.”
Bleackley made his Rebels season debut after returning from the Colorado Avalanche camp and was impressive in the process. He finished with a goal and two helpers and was a plus-1.
“Bleacks comes back and creates some offence for us. He scores a big goal and makes a couple of really nice plays,” said Sutter. “It’s an adjustment for him, to be quite honest. That’s his first game he’s had at this level this fall, he never played any of our exhibition games. There’s going to a bit of a timing factor from being at an NHL camp and playing in an NHL preseason game and then coming back and playing here tonight. I thought he handled it quite well.”
Bleackley, wwho received a few stitches after being cut during the game, was selected as the Advocate’s second star and Polei, who picked up two assists, was the third star.
• Red Deer’s healthy scratches were defenceman Mario Grman and forwards Brayden Burke and Mason McCarty. Rearguard Hugo Jansons is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury . . . The Rebels open a three-game road trip Thursday against the Moose Jaw Warriors. Red Deer is in Brandon Saturday and visits Regina Sunday . . . The Rebels’ next home game is Oct. 10 versus the Medicine Hat Tigers.