The Red Deer Rebels got ahead of themselves Sunday evening at the Centrium.
The Rebels came bearing gifts nearly a full two weeks ahead of Christmas and consequently dropped a 5-2 Western Hockey League decision to the Calgary Hitmen before 5,272 fans.
The Hitmen were the recipients of a handful of Red Deer turnovers and promptly turned two of them into goals, with Jakob Stukel scoring on a breakaway a mere 31 seconds into the contest and defenceman Jake Bean picking off an errant pass and connecting late in the middle frame.
“Turnovers are always going to kill you and when you play good teams they magnify,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter.
Adam Musil pulled the Reblels even with eight seconds remaining in the opening period, cashing a rebound while falling to the ice. His shot was the only one of 18 to get past Hitmen goalie Cody Porter — who was excellent while making 42 saves overall — in the first 20 minutes.
Stukel notched his second of the game during a Calgary two-man advantage early in the second period, squeezing the puck by netminder Rylan Toth. Rebels forward Presten Kopeck, on the power play, took a cross-ice feed from Lane Pederson and scored on a one-timer at 17:38, but Bean restored the visitors’ lead just 11 seconds later.
The Hitmen rearguard jumped on a turnover just outside the Red Deer blueline, moved into the low slot and beat Toth with a backhand shot.
“Look at their first three goals,” said Sutter. “There’s a turnover in the offensive zone and they get a breakaway … and the second goal is due to a terrible line change by our penalty killers (that led to a too-many-men infraction and a two-man disadvantage).”
Calgary’s third goal, the eventual winner, was a killer considering the Rebels had just drawn even.
“We had just tied it up 2-2 and hoped to get some momentum. Then we make an awful play in the neutral zone on a bad pass, don’t do our jobs in our own zone all of sudden it’s 3-2 and they have momentum going into the third.”
Hitmen captain and defenceman Colby Harmsworth was fingered for tripping 39 seconds into the final frame, but the Rebels failed to capitalize. Red Deer was denied a two-man advantage when Ivan Nikolishin was tripped and then assessed a highly questionable usportsmanlike infraction for diving late in the Harmsworth penalty.
“We had a chance to take the momentum back on the power play, but our power play wasn’t very good,” said Sutter.
Just a few minutes later, Musil took a tripping penalty and Calgary defenceman Keegan Kanzig beat Toth through a crowd with a wrist shot from the point. Toth finished with 24 saves.
“They get a power play and we don’t take care of our own zone and it ends up in our net,” said Sutter. “It was game over after that.
“We got back to playing later in the period, but their goalie played very well for them. He outplayed our goalie tonight.”
Stukel completed his hat trick with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
“I thought he was probably the best of our players tonight and he needed to be with some of the pressure they (Rebels) sustained,” said Hitmen head coach Mark French, in reference to Porter.
Porter and Stukel both came over in an October trade with the Vancouver Giants.
“Certainly a tip of the hat to our player personnel department for identifying some guys who would be able to come in and immediately help us,” said French. “As a coach you don’t know much about the guys over on that side (Western Conference), but they’ve really helped our lineup.”
The win gave the Hitmen sole possession of top spot in the Eastern Conference, two points up on Red Deer.
“We’ve had a decent stretch on the road and were able to get home and recharge before we came in here,” said French. “I don’t think it was our cleanest or most complete effort, but in some respects you have to get some gutty wins and the right guys were probably the best players for us tonight.”
Red Deer is one point ahead of the Brandon Wheat Kings and is two up on the Lethbridge Hurricanes, who sit fourth in the conference and third in the Central Division.
“What’s our record now, 1-4 against Calgary and Lethbridge, teams we are fighting with for first place in our division,” said Sutter. “If you don’t beat those teams you’re not going to finish in first place and that’s reality.
“We just haven’t done enough and played well enough. Mistakes have cost us in those games and they’ve cost us in the standings.”
The Rebels, who have played three fewer games than Calgary, are in Cranbrook Tuesday to face the Kootenay Ice, then close out their pre-Christmas portion of their schedule with home games versus the Ice and Hurricanes Friday and Saturday.