It’s a well-worn cliche´, but one that rings truer than any other.
“Your best players have to be your best players,” Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach reiterated this week, as he prepared his troops for an Eastern Conference quarter-final battle with the Prince Albert Raiders, a best-of-seven set that opens tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Centrium.
The Rebels’ top players will indeed have to be at the apex of their game if the team’s post-season is to extend to another series. The likes of netminder Patrik Bartosak, defenceman Mathew Dumba and forwards Turner Elson and Rhyse Dieno must make a difference; they have to be game-changers.
Bartosak, first and foremost, holds the key to the Rebels’ fortunes. The Eastern Conference goaltender of the year and first-team all-star has been nothing short of excellent all season and has to continue in that vein.
“Any team that wants to have success . . . it starts with your goaltending,” said Sutter. “You need good goaltending. You can put together a dynamite team, but if your goaltending isn’t rock-solid, it’s really tough to win.
“Patty has certainly given us that and we’ll expect that from him in the playoffs. And he should expect that from himself. He’s a 19 year-old-player who has had a great year, but this is the key time of the season.”
Bartosak will celebrate his 20th birthday next week, but his age should not prevent him from being selected in this year’s NHL entry draft. He’s been that good this winter and NHL teams have taken notice.
“This is the time of year when the NHL scouts are watching really closely,” said Sutter. “I’ve talked to numerous (NHL) teams and there’s certainly a lot of interest there (in Bartosak). Yet they want to see him play at this time of the year.”
The Minnesota Wild, meanwhile, will be interested in Dumba’s playoff performance. The Wild drafted Dumba in the first round last year and brought the 18-year-old to camp once the NHL season resumed and kept him with the big club for two weeks.
Dumba started slow this season but turned his game around over the last two months. He finished third in team scoring with 16 goals and 42 points and was a plus-10, a true indication of how his defensive play evolved during the months of February and March.
Sutter wants to see more of the same from the dynamic defender with turn-on-a-dime wheels and a heavy shot. And the Rebels bench boss wants to see it on a consistent basis.
“With Matty, it about responsibility and accountability to have his game where it should be on a nightly basis,” said Sutter. “Obviously he’s one of our best players and we need him to be that.
“Where Matty gets to where he isn’t your best player is when he tries to do too much. When he just keeps the game simple, he manages the blueline the right way. He can create a lot of things in the offensive zone and if he just plays a simple, smart game in the other zones and understands when to rush up and when not to, he’s a very effective player.”
“Because Matty is such a caring player, he sometimes wants to try to do too much and that’s when the mistakes occur,” added Sutter.
Up front, Elson and Dieno will surely be front and centre if the Rebels experience opening-round success. Dieno captured the team scoring title with 27 goals and 59 points in just 48 games, while Elson was runner-up with 26 goals and 57 points.
Elson, however, brings much more to the table than just offence. As the Rebels captain, he’s the undisputed team leader and has been the club’s most dependable forward game in and game out.
“No question, outside of Patty (Elson) has been our most consistent player,” said Sutter. “I look at that whole line, with Maxy (Brooks Maxwell), Dieno and Turner. They’re our best forwards and our best line and they have to play that way.
“At the end of the day your matchups have to be better than the other team’s, or you don’t win. In some way, shape or form, Our No. 1 line has to be better than their (Raiders’) No. 1 line.”
Dieno, who like Elson is a bookend on the Rebels’ top unit, has been nothing less than a steal of a deal since joining the team in November. The cost of bringing the Davidson, Sask., native and former Medicine Hat Tiger/Kamloops Blazer to the Rebels was . . . nothing.
“He’s been outstanding. He’s been a real good 19-year-old for us and he’ll be a great 20-year-old for us next season,” said Sutter. “He’ll definitely be one of our overage players next year and right now he’s certainly doing everything on his part to get some pro interest.
“For all these guys, it’s about making a difference and they’re all being watched. Even though Turner Elson is a signed player, the Calgary Flames will be watching him in the playoffs. They’ll be looking at how he performs, how he responds when it comes down to crunch time.”
While the aforementioned quartet must be major contributors for the Rebels to emerge victorious in this opening-round series, Sutter noted that the supporting cast will have to be Oscar-worthy.
“Everyone has to take their game to a different level. At this time of the year it’s all about rising to the occasion,” he said. “Our team game has been , for the most part, pretty good, and when we’ve had breakdowns our goaltending has saved us.
“We’ve been able to score enough goals to win games. When we’ve had to score three, four, five six goals, we’ve done it. All of it is due to a trust factor, a belief factor inside of the group that they can do it, that they have the skills to do it.”