The Red Deer Rebels were on the short end of the ledger in four of basically five one-goal games, and thus their Western Hockey League season ended Saturday in Medicine Hat.
The Rebels simply couldn’t get a break or buy a goal at the most opportune time during the series. Saturday’s game at the old Arena was no exception, as Tigers forward Trevor Cox scored with just under two minutes remaining to give his club a 4-3 victory and a 4-1 win in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final.
It was a series in which the Rebels could have prevailed in five games. It was that close.
“I can’t really put into words how good it felt,” Cox told Ryan McCracken of the Medicine Hat News, in reference to his series-clinching goal. “It was so tight, every game. We saw games that were tied for most of the series. A lot of effort was put into this.”
Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter was proud of the manner in which his team performed in Saturday’s do-or-die outing.
“I felt we played really well again last night, we pushed a lot of the play,” he said Sunday. “We got back to playing like we had been in the series. Outside of 30 minutes of Game 4 (a 5-3 Tigers win Thursday in Red Deer that included an empty-net goal) we were good in this series.”
Goaltending was somewhat of a problem for the Rebels Saturday, as Rylan Toth looked out of place in comparison to his previous four starts in the series.
“Tother had a tough night, which is too bad because he played well all series. He just fought it last night,” said Sutter.
“It was one of those games where he wasn’t as sharp as we would have liked him to be, but he had a good year and played well for the better part of the playoffs for us.
“We did a lot of good things last night, but I’m sure that he’d like to have two or three of those goals back, as would our team, but we can’t do anything about it.”
Cole Sanford opened the scoring for the Tigers with a power-play goal 6:18 into the contest and Riley Sheen answered for the Rebels with his first goal of the series — also on the power play — just over four minutes later.
From there, Steve Owre regained the Tigers’ lead with his second of playoffs at 15:16 of the opening frame and Colton Bobyk pulled Red Deer even 69 seconds later.
Evan Polei gave the Rebels their only lead of the contest with a power-play tally at 3:29 of the second period, setting the stage for Owre’s equalizer — and second of the game — with two minutes left in the middle frame, and then Cox’s late winner.
Toth finished with 32 saves, while Marek Langhamer blocked 28 shots at the other end.
Despite Toth’s struggles in Game 5, Sutter wasn’t throwing the rookie stopper under the bus. On the contrary . . .
“He learned a lot this year and hopefully going through this experience will make him a better goalie moving forward,” said the Rebels bench boss, who then made a reference to Shane Bendera, who helped the Rebels win a Memorial Cup in 2001 in just his second season as a starter.
“When Bendera came in as a 17-year-old he went through some tremendous growing pains his first year and then the following year he won us a Memorial Cup,” said Sutter.
The Rebels’ defence was solid through the series, but the club’s biggest guns didn’t provide enough offence.
“The craziest thing about this is we gave up only 13 goals — and one was an empty-netter — and we lose four games to one,” said Sutter. “That’s the hardest part for everybody, the fact that it was probably the best hockey we’ve played all year.”
Except for the club’s offence, which didn’t produce when needed. The Rebels’s top three forwards — Conner Bleackley, Riley Sheen and Brooks Maxwell — combined for four points, while the Tigers top three — Cox, Sanford and Steve Owre — recorded a combined 20 points.
“We had a tough time scoring, our elite players had a tough time scoring,” said Sutter. “With Bleacks, it’s too bad he got hurt before playoffs because he never got the rhythm of the pace of what playoff hockey is until the third period in Game 4 and last night he played well. Sheener, the same thing. He just couldn’t find the net and then last night he was able to.
“Max had a tough time offensively in the series. (Presten) Kopeck, too. (Wyatt) Johnson got a couple goals. Our top forwards didn’t give us the production that we would have liked to have.
“But the work ethic and commitment to playing hard was there. But we needed some offence from these guys and nothing seemed to work. We tried to change things up to try and get one or two of them going and just couldn’t seem to find a match that seemed to work, not only to get some offensive production but be able to shut down their top guys.”
Sutter was tickled with his team’s blueline play.
“I was really happy with our defence. I thought Haydn (Fleury), (Kayle) Doetzel, (Nelson) Nogier and (Josh) Mahura were outstanding, and there’s a good chance all four will be back next year,” said Sutter.
“And Bobs (Colton Bobyk) gave us everything he could, but unfortunately he’s been playing injured the whole year. Now he’ll get done what needs to get done and hopefully he’ll come back and be at the level he wants to be at and where we need him to be at next season.”
Bobyk will undergo knee surgery and should be ready for training camp in August.
Sutter will conduct exit meeting with his players today.