The goal that wasn’t and a sloppy, uninspired second-period performance cost the Red Deer Rebels in a big way Thursday night at the Enmax Centrium.
Up 1-0 on an early marker by Haydn Fleury, the Rebels appeared to grab a two-goal lead near the mid-way point of the opening period. But the officials disallowed the goal due to incidental contact, ruling that Rebels forward Brooks Maxwell interfered with Medicine Hat Tigers netminder Marek Langhamer.
Maxwell, in fact, was cross-checked into the Tigers goalie and was never in the crease. Instead of being up two, the Rebels gave up a goal to Cole Sanford with 21 seconds left in the period and then surrendered two more — unanswered — in the middle frame en route to a 5-3 loss to the visitors before 5,946 fans.
As a result, The Tigers took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final with Game 5 set for Saturday night in Medicine Hat.
“It’s a tough thing because Max is driving to the net. He goes to stop and gets pushed from behind and goes into the goalie,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “I know there’s always that chance it can get called back because of not giving the goalie the ability to make a save. But again, our player is getting pushed into the goalie, too. So it’s a judgement call from the refs and obviously it didn’t go in our favour.”
As good as they were for most of the first period, the Rebels were on their heels in the second. Sutter saw the switch in momentum late in the opening frame.
“The last seven minutes of the first period we just got off track. They started taking the game over from that point and then we didn’t get any of the momentum back in the second period,” he said.
“I just thought we stood around and watched a lot. We weren’t moving our feet, we weren’t making plays and we spent a lot of time in our own zone. We had a lot of turnovers and played right into their hands. In the third we got playing again.”
But not before the Tigers made it 4-1 on a breakaway goal by Dryden Hunt just 1:19 into the period.
“It hurt giving up that fourth goal. It’s a four-on-four and they get a breakaway that should never have happened,” said the Rebels boss.
“But we responded to that and had a really good last 18 minutes in the third. We just have to get back to our game and play like we can. Obviously it wasn’t good enough tonight. You can’t play 30 to 35 minutes at this point of the season and expect to win.”
Trevor Cox notched his second goal of the series for the Tigers at 3:09 of the second period, burying a rebound from the low slot, and Steve Owre connected just over seven minutes later, cashing another rebound while parked at the edge of the crease. Rebels netminder Rylan Toth couldn’t be faulted on either goal.
The Rebels battled back following Hunt’s goal, with Conner Bleackley banking a shot off a Tigers skate and past Langhamer at 7:58. Despite being assessed six of nine of penalties in the final frame, the Rebels carried the play — outshooting the visitors 22-8 — and got a short-handed tally from Wyatt Johnson with 24 seconds remaining.
Red Deer won a faceoff in the Medicine Hat end with eight seconds remaining and Toth on the bench, but the puck was drawn out over the blueline. Markus Eisenschmid won a race for the puck and scored into an empty net at 19:59.
“We had a good start to the game, the first 10 minutes,” said Fleury, who scored his first of the series with a point shot following a pass from Presten Kopeck.
“In the third we made a push, but at the end of the day we took some bad penalties and gave up a breakaway goal at the start of the third. You can’t make those kinds of mistakes in the playoffs.”
The Tigers’ top forwards were difference makers, with Sanford, Cox, Hunt and Owre combining for seven points.
“For sure, they are tough to play against, but at the same time we have to do a better job on those guys,” said Fleury. “That’s mine and (Kayle) Doetzel’s job to shut those guys down and tonight we didn’t do a good enough job.”
The play of his premier skaters didn’t surprise Tigers head coach Shaun Clouston.
“Sanford has been clutch all year,” said Clouston. “His goal late in the first was a big one. Red Deer got the first goal and got the crowd into it and I thought that was a really important one for us.”
Despite having a chokehold on the series with the next game on their home ice, Clouston insisted it’s not over yet
“You just have to play. Red Deer has a great team and obviously we saw in the third period they’re going to battle hard,” said the Tigers bench boss. “There’s a lot of hockey left and we just have to make sure we’re ready (Saturday).”
• Toth finished with 38 saves, one fewer than Langhamer, who was particularly strong in the final period . . . The three stars were (1) Sanford, (2) Fleury and (3) Langhamer . . . The Rebels went with the same lineup that won Game 3 by a count of 2-1 Wednesday, with forwards Austin Adamson and Reese Johnson and defenceman Austin Strand scratched. Forward Adam Musil remains out with a lower body injury . . . Tigers forward Chad Butcher was scratched due to a hand injury . . . Game 6, if needed, will go Sunday at 5 p.m. at the Centrium. If the Rebels win the next two, a seventh game will be played Tuesday at Medicine Hat.