Any resemblance between the Red Deer Rebels who played the first period Friday and the edition that cranked it up over the final 40 minutes was purely coincidental.
Down 2-0 after an opening 20 minutes in which they were outshot 15-3, the Rebels rang up a trio of second-period goals and then hung on for a 3-2 Western Hockey League victory over the Calgary Hitmen in front of a lively gathering of 7,058 at the Enmax Centrium.
“We just knew that we had to stick to it. We haven’t had a lot of confidence against the Calgary team and it’s been a good rivalry for years,” said Rebels forward Riley Sheen, the game’s first star. “ We just thought that if we came out in the second period and regrouped and started strong, we could get a couple on them and that’s exactly what we did.
“It’s never easy coming in with a 2-0 (deficit) especially when you play such a sloppy period like that. But we have a resilient group and it was good to come out on top.”
The Hitmen struck twice within a 44-second span of the first period, with Taylor Sanheim scoring from the edge of the crease at 15:12 and defenceman Ben Thomas beating a screened Rebels netminder Rylan Toth with a point shot at 15:56.
While Toth looked at plenty of rubber in the opening frame, the vast majority of the shots were low quality. Still, the Rebels managed only a trio of volleys at Hitmen goaltender Brendan Burke and looked all but beaten with 40 minutes still to go.
However, the Rebels found their legs in the middle stanza and, with Calgary rearguard Michael Zipp serving a roughing penalty, finally broke through when Sheen connected with a wrist shot from the high slot a mere 77 seconds in.
Presten Kopeck banged home a rebound off the end glass near the midway point of the period to pull the Rebels even, and defenceman Brett Cote notched the winner at 14:15 — again on the power play — with a shot from the top of the faceoff circle.
“We had to respond after the way we played the first period,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “We did a lot of chasing and they dictated a lot of the play. We were on our heels, we weren’t playing the way we’re capable of playing.
“We had a little talk after the first period about what are we as a team. We picked up our work ethic, got more engaged in the game and were skating and moving pucks better. We drew some penalties and scored some goals. The third period was a battle, like playoff hockey.”
Toth was also a factor while stopping 28 shots overall. He made a pair of excellent saves in the final frame, getting in front of shots by Kenton Helgesen and Adam Tambellini.
Burke denied Evan Polei on a second-period breakaway and seconds later took a goal away from Sheen, who let fly with a one-timer from the low slot. After making a total of nine saves, Burke was replaced at the start of the third period by Mack Shields, who stopped all seven shots he faced over the final 20 minutes.
The Rebels’ special teams were splendid, with the power play striking twice and the penalty kill going three-for-three.
“Our penalty killers did a great job,” said Sutter. “They (Hitmen) have some fairly dynamic players and you have to be able to do a good job against them. You need good awareness and you have to be strong on pucks.
“Our penalty kill was very good tonight and our power play got a couple of goals. Special teams were massive.”
The Rebels’ power play has come alive in recent games and Sheen credited that to the players’ ability to move the puck and get it to the net.
“Tonight we just stuck to what we’ve been doing” he said. “We’ve been moving and running some plays. Really, movement is the key to a good power play and when you have a big guy like Pols (Polei) in front he takes a lot of the vision from the goalie.
“If you can get it upstairs there’s a good chance it’s going in.”
The Rebels, who host the Kootenay Ice tonight, moved to within a point of the Central Division co-leading Hitmen and Medicine Hat Tigers, who were 7-1 losers to the Ice Friday at Cranbrook.
l Polei and six-foot-six, 242- pound Hitmen blueliner Keegan Kanzig tangled in the second period. Polei appeared to land the only punch of the fight and also got the takedown.