CALGARY — Too little, too late.
The Red Deer Rebels showed some life in the third period Thursday and even potted the lone goal of the frame, but their performance — particularly from the go-to players — through the first 40 minutes proved costly.
In the end, Red Deer came out on the short end of a 4-2 count, falling to the Calgary Hitmen in the opening game of a best-of-seven WHL Eastern Conference semifinal at the Saddledome.
Game 2 goes tonight here tonight, with the puck dropping at 7:30 p.m.
“We were better in the third, but our best players tonight were our third and fourth lines and our fifth and sixth defencemen,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter.
“Our top two lines didn’t play very well for the first 40 minutes. We had some urgency in the third period but no urgency in the first two periods, and that’s what’s disappointing.
“It’s not the fact we lost the first game of the series, it’s the way we lost the game.”
Indeed, the Hitmen too often made it look too easy, especially in the middle stanza when they potted three goals to take command of the contest.
Defenceman Alex Roach broke to the net and — from an angle — banked a shot off the far post and past Rebels netminder Patrik Bartosak for a 2-0 Calgary lead just 1:21 into the period.
Then, after the Rebels cut the deficit to a single goal when Dominik Volek converted a perfect two-on-one feed from Conner Bleackley just 36 seconds later, the hosts blew it open with a pair of markers less than three minutes apart.
Brady Brassart, who notched the lone goal of the first period — tipping home a point shot by Spencer Humphries — scored his second of the night at 6:24, then completed his hat trick at 9:19.
Two of Calgary’s goals were via the power play, which proved to be the difference in the outcome.
“At the end of the night, you can say that. The fact is we took a couple of bad penalties that we can’t be taking at this time of the year,” said Sutter.
Turner Elson sniped his third goal of the playoffs at 7:02 of the third period to close out the scoring, cutting wide across the blueline and beating Hitmen netminder Chris Driedger with a laser to the opposite corner.
“We had a good third period, but we still have a lot more to give,” said Elson. “We have a lot of people who have to step up and we have to make sure we’re going hard every shift. We can’t let up on this team.”
Sutter wondered why his squad didn’t play with the same tenacity as was the case in a four-game conference quarter-final sweep of the Prince Albert Raiders, and Elson suggested his coach had a point.
“We need more energy on the bench, we need more energy on the ice,” said the Rebels captain. “We have to be laying the body and getting to the net. Their goalie saw too many pucks tonight.”
For the most part, Driedger was seldom tested through the first 40 minutes, his best save coming on a goalmouth tip by Cory Millette.
Driedger came up big in the third period, though, foiling Elson from close range and twice robbing Volek.
The Calgary stopper finished with 28 saves, while Bartosak turned aside 29 shots. The Red Deer goalie’s best save was on Pavlo Padakin on a second-period short-handed breakaway, but he looked uncharacteristically vulnerable on perhaps two goals.
“We didn’t get any big saves,” said Sutter. “Patty, our top two defensive pairings, our top two lines . . . they were not good tonight. That’s 11 of your 20 players dressed.
“At this time of the year, really at any time of the year, your top players have to be your top players, they have to rise to the occasion.
“We just didn’t play with the compete level we did in the P.A. series, for whatever reason.”
Hitmen captain Cody Sylvester, who picked up three assists and was named second star of the game, said his team played just OK.
“If you can get a win in the first game of a series you’re going to be happy, but we have to clean up bits of our game,” he said.
The Hitmen took out Swift Current in a five-game quarter-final and Sylvester suggested the Rebels are a similar club to the Broncos.
“They work extremely hard and we know Red Deer isn’t going to quit. They got a goal in the third period but we responded well, but we know they’re going to come out hard tomorrow,” said Sylvester.
l The Calgary captain was a game-high plus-2 for the evening. On the other side of the spectrum, Rebels defenceman Mathew Dumba was minus-2 . . . The first and third stars of the game were Brassart and Elson . . . Games 3 and 4 of the series will be played Monday and Tuesday at the Centrium.