A lengthy layoff wasn’t necessarily a good thing for the Red Deer Rebels.
The Rebels, back in action for the first time in a week, weren’t at their sharpest Saturday despite posting a 5-3 Western Hockey League win over the Vancouver Giants in front of a recorded gathering of 6,124 at the Centrium.
“We played a decent game here tonight,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “You’re always a little concerned after having seven days without a game. It gets to be a long week for the kids between practices and trying different things to keep them energized and focused on their next game.
“I thought we had moments when we were good tonight and moments when we weren’t so good. Maybe more so in the second period when we got a little sloppy in our zone.”
Red Deer led 2-0 after 20 minutes on goals from Brooks Maxwell and Wyatt Johnson, then added to their lead following an early second-period turnover that led to Evan Polei’s 16th of the season, the big winger burying a pass from Jeff de Wit.
Kyle Sheen made it 4-0 with a power-play marker six minutes later, beating Giants goaltender Cody Porter over the shoulder from the top of the right faceoff circle.
The goal spelled the end of the night for Porter, who stopped 12 of the 16 shots he faced.
Payton Lee replaced Porter and held his team in the game the rest of the way, turning aside 15 of 16 shots.
Carter Popoff came out of the penalty box, broke in alone and beat Rebels netminder Rylan Toth late in the middle period, and Zane Jones cut the Rebels lead to 4-2 6:46 into the final frame.
From there, Haydn Fleury blew a power-play point shot past Lee at 12:20 to give the home side a three-goal cushion, and Popoff notched his second of the evening, connecting from directly off an offensive-zone faceoff with 4:20 remaining.
“I thought I was skating well tonight. I made some good plays and got rewarded with a goal,” said Fleury, who was named first star of the game.
“We had a good first half of the game and in the second half we were kind of sitting back on our heels,” he added. “They started taking it to us but we bore down in the third and had a huge kill late in the game.”
Fleury was referring to the Giants’ two-man advantage that turned into a three-man edge with Lee on the bench. Thanks in part to Toth, who finished with 28 saves, the Rebels were able to weather the late storm.
“We were under control in the third until we got into penalty trouble,” said Sutter. “The game didn’t need to be as tight as it was. It was 5-2 when we gave up a bad goal off the faceoff. Two of their players out-competed four of ours around the net.
“But it’s two points.”
Sutter was relieved to see the Rebels’ power play (two-for-five) come to life.
“We worked on some things this week, we changed some things,” said the Red Deer bench boss.
“I didn’t like the way our power play had been playing, I just felt we were very robotic on the power play. We needed to get more movement and get more pucks directed to net and we did a good job of that tonight.”
“The key was just shooting pucks. That was the message all week — just keep shooting and getting guys to the net,” added Fleury.
The Rebels return to action Tuesday against the visiting Kelowna Rockets, the No. 1 team in the league.
“We know we can be better than we were tonight and we know we’ll have to be better against Kelowna,” said Sutter.
The Rebels host the Edmonton Oil Kings and Prince Albert Raiders Friday and Saturday before heading to B.C. the following week for games in Kamloops, Vancouver and Victoria.
• Polei engaged Giants heavyweight Mason Geertsen in a lively second-period scrap and easily held his own.