All for one and one for all.
There were no passengers on the Red Deer Rebels bench as the home side skated to a 6-3 WHL win over the Prince George Cougars in front of 4,669 fans Friday night at the Enmax Centrium.
“It was nice to see. I thought that was probably our best 60-minute effort of the whole season and hopefully just a sign of things to come,” said Rebels captain Conner Bleackley, who assisted on three goals.
Bleackley’s line combined for eight points as Wyatt Johnson tallied twice and Grayson Pawlenchuk had a goal and assisted on a pair.
“That was only our second game together but we kind of found each other all over the ice,” said Bleackley. “All three of us can shoot the puck and all three of us can pass the puck. We’re a big line with speed, size and skill.”
The Rebels never led until Johnson scored his first of the night at 12:12 of the middle frame to put the home side up 3-2. He notched the eventual winner just under five minutes later, completing a nifty three-way passing play with his linemates, and newcomer Tyler Sandhu potted a power-play marker with 1:15 left in the period when he dug the puck out of a scrum at the side of the net and beat goaltender Ty Edmonds.
Tyler Mrkonjic opened the scoring for the visitors 12:25 into the contest, but Rebels forward Evan Polei, at the top of the crease, converted a centering pass from Adam Musil at 16:23 with Red Deer on a power play.
Jari Erricson restored the Cougars’ lead early in the second period, an advantage that held up for a mere 59 seconds as the Rebels pulled even when Sandhu directed a shot at the net that deflected in off the skate of teammate Brett Cote.
“We stayed with it tonight,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “We got down a goal and we bounced back, gave up a goal again and bounced back. We stayed with our game.
“It was a team effort, right through our whole lineup. We made a couple of tweaks during the game that we thought would help us and they worked. That’s the way we have to play, we have to play a team game. We have to do things right, line after line, defensive pairing after defensive pairing.”
Brad Morrison gave the visitors some late hope when he beat Rebels netminder Rylan Toth high to the glove side on a two-one-one at 14:30 of the third period, but Pawlenchuk sealed the deal with his fourth of the season three minutes later, burying a feed from Bleackley while parked in front of Edmonds.
Special teams were key for the Rebels, who were two-for-two on both the power play and penalty kill. The Rebels have now scored four times during their last six power plays.
“I liked the way we moved the puck and established shots,” said Sutter, in reference to his team’s man-advantage success. “That’s what sets the tone for your power play. Our power play was really sharp in practice yesterday and Steve (assistant coach O’Rourke) has done a real good job in the last while of keying in on the details we need to have on our power play.”
The Rebels fired 31 shots at Edmonds, while Toth made 24 saves including a handful of beauties. Most notable were a brilliant skate save on David Soltes in the opening period and a glove stop on defenceman Marc McNulty in the third.
“We got some key saves,” said Sutter. “That one in the first period was a huge save at the time and the guys seemed to get fired up after that.”
Sutter was impressed with his entire team, including his two NHL first-round draft picks — Bleackley and defenceman Haydn Fleury.
“Conner and Haydn played rock solid,” said the Rebels boss. “They were both very good and the guys followed them.”
Sandhu was another who left the coach smiling.
“He got a goal and a couple of points. He’s one of those guys who makes plays,” Sutter said of the 18-year-old forward, who made his Rebels debut after being acquired from the Everett Silvertips earlier in the week. “You put him in those offensive situations and he can make plays.
“He’s just one of those guys who has a knack for it. For it being his first game, I thought he did a heck of a job.”
Sandhu admitted he had a slight case of the jitters prior to the game.
“I was definitely nervous but excited at the same time,” he said. “Obviously coming in and being the new guy, I wanted to play hard and make a good impression. The guys made it easy for me. It was a good overall game for us and I really enjoyed it.”
The Rebels, who improved to 4-7-1-0 with the triumph, get right back at it tonight when the Moose Jaw Warriors visit the Centrium.
“We had a good week of practice and we hit the reset button, with tonight being Game One of a 61-game season,” said Bleackley. “But tonight means nothing if we don’t follow through with it.”