PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. — It’s onward and upward for the Red Deer Rebels.
The Rebels rallied from a two-goal deficit Wednesday and got a third-period marker from captain Turner Elson to defeat the Prince Albert Raiders 3-2 and complete a four-game sweep of the best-of-seven WHL Eastern Conference quarter-final.
Red Deer will meet the Calgary Hitmen in a conference semifinal that will start late next week at the Saddledome.
The Raiders, in desperation mode, roared out of the gate in the same fashion as they did the night before. But unlike Game 3, in which the first period was scoreless, the hosts struck for two goals in the first nine minutes.
However, that turned out to be all the Raiders would produce. After allowing 17 shots in the first 20 minutes, the Rebels held Prince Albert to 14 the rest of the way.
“It was huge for us to come in here and get two wins,” said Rebels forward Rhyse Dieno, who picked up an assist to give him six points (2g,4a) in the series. “Our goal was to win two here.
“We kind of got away from our game in the first period, but Brent (GM/head coach Sutter) gave us the gears and we got back to our game and shut them down defensively the last two periods.”
The Raiders, with the vast majority of the 2,655 fans in attendance loudly voicing their approval, opened the scoring 5:19 into the game as Mark McNeill cashed a rebound of a point shot by Josh Morrissey.
The hosts continued to apply heat, and with Rebels rearguard Devan Fafard off for slashing, potted their first power-play goal of the series. Jayden Hart was the trigger man, slipping the puck past Red Deer netminder Patrik Bartosak while parked alone in front.
Conner Bleackley replied for the Rebels at 12:02, working his way out of the corner and into the low slot and wiring a wrist shot past Raiders goaltender Luke Siemens.
“We knew they were a desperate team and they were going to come hard again early in the game,” said Sutter. “The first 15 minutes, I thought we played a soft game.
“But we regrouped — and the goal by Bleacks before the period was over was huge — and from that point on we were pretty darn good again the last two periods. We created a lot more too and spent a lot of time in their zone.”
Brooks Maxwell, following a heads-up play by Dieno to keep the puck inside the Raiders blueline, pulled the Rebels even at 13:05 of the second period, working into the faceoff circle and picking the far corner glove-side with Siemens at least partially screened.
“I think the tender was kind of screened. I kind of fired through the screen and it went in. It was a great feeling,” said Maxwell.
Elson sniped the winner midway through the final frame, working his way down the left side and connecting with a wrist shot from the faceoff circle.
The turning point, according to Dieno, was the Rebels’ ability to shake off some early jitters.
“I think with us being up 3-0 in the series, we were gripping our sticks too tight,” he suggested. “Going into the second period, we just calmed down and got back to our game.”
Bartosak, as per usual, was nothing short of excellent. He made a pair of splendid saves on Leon Draisaitl in the first period, foiled Reid Gardiner on a second-period breakaway and robbed Shane Danyluk with just a few seconds left and with Siemens on the bench.
The Eastern Conference goaltender of the year finished with 29 saves. Siemens, meanwhile, stopped 34 shots.
While the Rebels swept the series, every game was a true test.
“The Raiders are good competitors and we knew they would be,” said Maxwell. “We had good battles with them all year and this was a good, tough series.”
“I was proud of the kids, they competed hard and played hard,” said Sutter. “We did a good job with a lot of our details. We were resilient in every game and that’s how we as coaches want to see this team play.
“We want to be a structured team that plays with hockey sense and smarts. And hey, it doesn’t matter who you play — if you win in four you’re doing something right.”
Raiders head coach Steve Young wasn’t hanging his head despite the defeat.
“Our guys can be happy and proud of what they’ve accomplished this season,” he insisted. “Last year we weren’t in the playoffs . . . we weren’t near the playoffs.
“We did a lot of good things in a lot of categories this season. We got some good playoff experience and when you’re playing a team, like this (Rebels) you have to learn every shift.
“We can say we’re disappointed that we lost four straight, but there was a lot of positives from our hockey club this year.”
The Rebels now have at least a week off before facing the Hitmen in the next round.
“The time off will be good for us,” said Dieno. “We have some guys who are a little banged up right now. We can get healthy and get ready for the next (series).”
l The three stars were (1) Elson, (2) Draisaitl and (3) Maxwell).