Weary of surrendering power-play goals left, right and centre, the Red Deer Rebels decided their penalty kill needed a new look and a new approach.
If Wednesday’s performance was any indication … mission accomplished.
The penalty kill was a perfect six-for-six and was a big reason the Rebels were able to walk over the Moose Jaw Warriors 6-1 in a Western Hockey League contest viewed by 5,197 fans at the Centrium.
“We took a look at it (penalty kill) on the road and we had to make some changes, of course,” said Rebels associate coach Jeff Truitt, in reference to Red Deer’s recent three-game jaunt into the East Division. “The guys are excited about the way we’re playing on the power play and credit to those guys and credit to (netminder) Rylan Toth for standing in there for us.”
Toth, along with defencemen Nelson Nogier and Haydn Fleury, were Red Deer’s best penalty killers Wednesday. Nogier also picked up a pair of assists, while Fleury notched a goal and Toth turned aside 28 shots to record his 24th victory of the season.
“We’ve been a lot more aggressive (killing penalties). Earlier, our reading and reacting wasn’t sharp enough,” said Truitt. “We want to pressure and make teams react to us instead of us reacting to them all the time. It’s a great change.”
The Rebels raced out to a 3-0 first-period lead while pelting Warriors goaltender Zach Sawchenko with 17 shots. Colton Bobyk opened the scoring with a volley from the point, Reese Johnson potted his third of the season when he showed great patience and lifted the puck over a fallen Sawchenko, and Ivan Nikolishin connected from a power-play scramble.
The Warriors struck back 7:19 into the middle frame as defenceman Marc McNulty cruised in from the point and beat Toth with a wide deke, but Adam Helewka restored Red Deer’s three-goal cushion with 12 seconds remaining in the period. Parked at the top of the crease, Helewka took a rebound of a Nogier point shot and deposited the puck behind Sawchenko while losing his balance.
“We got off to a real good start. We got off the pedal in the second period with a lot of turnovers and that kind of gave them (Warriors) life,” said Truitt. “That late goal was key for us.”
The Rebels closed out the scoring with a pair of third-period tallies. Austin Strand — with his first of the season — found the top of the net with a blast from the point and Fleury was the recipient of a gift when his attempted pass struck a Moose Jaw defender and deflected past the Warriors goaltender.
“In the third period I thought it was going to be one of those games where if we get the next one then maybe good things are going to happen, and if they get it then it’s going to get interesting,” said Truitt. “But we got that goal (from Strand) that we needed.”
With Wednesday’s effort, the Rebels’ penalty kill moved up one spot in the standings — from 20th to 19th.
“It’s nice to see some success coming on that side of the special teams,” said Nogier. “We’ve changed the way that we’re killing and obviously we’re getting a bit more success with that. So we’ll try to stay on that page and keep the ball rolling.”
The Rebels rearguard agreed that an aggressive strategy was the key to erasing all six Moose Jaw power plays.
“From up ice to the end zone, we’re just being a little more aggressive,” said Nogier. “It’s a little more tiring on the legs because we’re not playing as passive, but when you get that kind of success in shutting down a team on the power play, you can’t argue with that.”
The Rebels snapped a two-game losing streak while opening a five-game homestand.
“We responded well tonight considering how we’ve played the last five games, ” said Nogier. “We had a good practice yesterday and I think that carried over into today’s game. The intensity and the emotion was there.
“We almost strung together a 60-minute game and we’ll continue to try and do that.”
The Rebels return to action Friday against the Swift Current Broncos. The Everett Silvertips visit the Centrium 24 hours later.
• Brian Sutter and former Rebels forward Colby Armstrong will serve as assistant coaches in the BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game set for Jan. 28 in Vancouver.
Sutter and Armstrong will join head coach Don Cherry, Hockey Hall of Fame member Brian Kilrea and his long-time Ottawa 67’s assistant Bert O’Brien behind the bench for Team Cherry.
Sutter played two seasons with the Lethbridge Broncos in the mid ’70s and went on to appear in 779 NHL games with the St. Louis Blues. He also coached 13 seasons with the Blues, Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames and Chicago Blackhawks, winning the Jack Adams award as the top NHL bench boss in 2001 while guiding the Blues.
Sutter also spent the 2007-08 WHL season as head coach of the Rebels and is currently in the same position with the Innisfail Eagles of the senior AAA Chinook Hockey League.
Armstrong played three seasons with the Rebels and was a valuable member of the 2001 Memorial Cup championship team. He competed in the Top Prospects Game in 2001 and was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of that year’s NHL entry draft.
Armstrong played 477 NHL games with Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Toronto and Montreal and is now an analyst for Sportsnet’s national coverage of the NHL.