All along, the Red Deer Rebels suspected the Calgary Hitmen were next on their post-season list.
That much was confirmed Friday when the Edmonton Oil Kings eliminated the Kootenay Ice from the WHL playoffs with a 4-1 win in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final, thus earning a date with the Medicine Hat Tigers and leaving the Rebels and Calgary to clash in the other conference semifinal.
For there to be another semifinal scenario, the Ice would have had to roar back from a 3-1 deficit in games to shock the defending league champion Oil Kings, setting up a Calgary-Kootenay meeting and a battle between Red Deer and Medicine Hat.
“We kind of thought it would be Calgary with them being up 3-1 (over Swift Current) and Edmonton being up 3-1 on Kootenay,” Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter said Sunday. “There would have had to be a major upset for that to change, so we’ve been preparing the last few days like we would be facing Calgary.”
The Hitmen will go into the series — opening Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Saddledome — as favourites, but to suggest the Rebels will be heavy underdogs would be wrong. Red Deer was 2-4 versus Calgary in regular-season play, with just one of the six meetings decided by more than a single goal, and that was a 4-2 Hitmen victory.
The Hitmen finished 12 points clear of their northern neighbours during the regular season, but as Sutter noted, his squad started slow and finished strong.
“If you look at the standings and take away our first six to seven weeks of the season, our record is as good as theirs,” said the Rebels bench boss. “We had a pretty good record over the final 20 (regular-season) games or so and then we played well in the first (playoff) round. Now it’s a new opponent and another new challenge for us and we have to be ready for it. The team we’re playing is a good team, a very good team, and yet we match up well with them and I think we’ll be fine.”
The Rebels were 14-6-1 over their final 21 regular-season outings — and that included three successive losses to Calgary and Edmonton just prior to the playoffs — and then swept the Prince Albert Raiders in conference quarter-final play. Clearly, Sutter feels his team has never been better this winter than is currently the case.
“We’re a different team now and I’m sure they (Hitmen) are somewhat different also. But I think we match up well against them,” said Sutter.
The Hitmen have a clear advantage over the Rebels in terms of size, blueline experience and overall depth. But Patrik Bartosak gives the Rebels an all-important edge between the pipes.
“They’re a big team and have an older defence, and yet we’ve played well against them,” said Sutter. “With the two teams being rivals, the players are going to show a lot of emotion and intensity and you have to expect it to be a very intense series.”
The likes of Bartosak, defenceman Mathew Dumba and first-line forwards Turner Elson, Rhyse Dieno and Brooks Maxwell were front and centre against Prince Albert, and will have to continue in that vein versus the Hitmen.
“At this time of the year and at every level, your best players have to be your best players,” said Sutter. “Plus, you’re going to get some other guys to really step up like we did in the first series. We had other guys play well for us.
“Of course, goaltending is still a key and it has to be for any team that wants to have success.”
The second game of the series will go Friday at the Saddledome, although with Rogers Sportsnet considering televising the game, a start time has yet to be determined. The conference semifinal will shift back to the Centrium for games Monday and Tuesday.
Rebels/Hitmen Eastern Conference quarter-final schedule (*if necessary):
Thursday, April 4: Red Deer at Calgary, 7 p.m.; Friday, April 5: Red Deer at Calgary, time TBA; Monday, April 8: Calgary at Red Deer, 7 p.m.; Tuesday, April 9: Calgary at Red Deer, 7 p.m.; Thursday, April 11: Red Deer at Calgary, 7 p.m.*; Saturday, April, 13: Calgary at Red Deer*; Tuesday, April 16: Red Deer at Calgary, 7 p.m.*