It’s not officially a playoff game, but tonight’s WHL Eastern Conference tie-breaker at the Enmax Centrium should resemble a post-season contest.
In fact, the match featuring the Red Deer Rebels and Prince Albert Raiders is basically the equivalent of a seventh game of a best-of-seven playoff series.
The winner moves on as the owner of the eighth and final playoff berth. The loser goes home, heart-broken and empty-handed.
Both clubs have been in playoff mode for the last two weeks. The Raiders gained a least a spot in a tie-breaker with a pair of wins over the Saskatoon Blades during the weekend, while the Rebels blanked the host Edmonton Oil Kings 5-0 Sunday, less than 24 hours after falling 7-4 to Edmonton on home ice.
A loss at Edmonton would have ended the Rebels’ season, but they took full advantage of an Oil Kings squad that was minus a handful of top players one day after locking up first place in the conference.
To suggest the Rebels were given a second life would be inaccurate. Red Deer earned the resurrection.
“We battled we gave ourselves this second chance,” Rebels veteran defenceman Brady Gaudet said Monday. “Our backs were against the wall. There was just one place to go with it and obviously we took the right route.
“And here we are playing Game 73. It’s much the same situation as we faced Sunday. We prevailed once and I think we can do it again.”
The Rebels were 2-1-1-0 versus the Raiders during the regular season, winning 4-3 (overtime) and 6-3 at home and splitting the two games in Prince Albert.
With their winning record in head-to-head meetings with Prince Albert this season — the reason the Rebels are hosting tonight’s game — and a four-game sweep of the Raiders in a playoff series last spring, the Rebels are confident of a positive result in the tie-breaker showdown.
“It goes back to playoffs last year. We were pretty successful against them and that kind of added a bit more meat to our four games this year,” said Gaudet. “We were pretty successful against them this season. I know the last time we went in there we did quite well (5-0 win Jan. 22).
“That’s definitely something we can build off of, but their backs are up against the wall, too, as they were the last two games. I think it’s going to be one heck of a game. There’s going to be a lot of compete out there.”
The Rebels played with a distinct sense of urgency Sunday and Gaudet promised that will carry over into tonight’s contest.
“You have no choice but to play with that urgency and that compete . . . like it’s your last day,” he said. “It’s do or die. You don’t really have a choice anymore.”
Meanwhile, the Raiders weren’t surprised that Red Deer was able to prevail Sunday at Rexall Place.
“We saw what was happening when Edmonton started scratching people,” Raiders forward Collin Valcourt, a Red Deer native, told Andrew Schopp of the Prince Albert Daily Herald following an early practice Monday. “They had nothing to lose so we weren’t overly shocked.”
The Rebels have a decided edge in goal with the presence of Patrik Bartosak, who blanked the Raiders during their last meeting.
Placing bodies in the Rebels crease will be the key to putting the puck past Bartosak tonight, said Prince Albert star defenceman Josh Morrissey.
“If they can’t see it, they can’t stop it,” said Morrissey. “We are going to try and get bodies and pucks to the net, jam away at it. In a game seven type of situation, sometimes it’s those little greasy ones that go in.”