The Red Deer Rebels earned a point against the Western Hockey League’s top team Tuesday night at the Enmax Centrium, but GM/head coach Brent Sutter felt his team could have had two with a 60- to 65-minute effort.
“We found a way to get a point, but I don’t think we’re overly pleased with the way we played, though,” said Sutter, following a 4-3 shootout loss to the Kelowna Rockets in front of a recorded gathering of 5,180.
“We played too much on our heels in the second period. We were soft on pucks and gave up three goals in a very short period of time. It was due to breakdowns and odd-man rushes where our forwards weren’t picking guys up.”
During the brief spell the Red Deer bench boss was referring to, the visitors struck for a trio of goals in a span of two minutes, an outburst that wiped out a 2-0 deficit.
The Rebels had their own offensive eruption earlier in the frame, as Austin Adamson finished off a nifty three-way passing play that involved Jeff de Wit and Kayle Doetzel, and Wyatt Johnson connected from a scramble a mere 13 seconds later.
But the Rockets replied when defenceman and team captain Madison Bowey converted a feed from Nick Merkley at 11:55. From there, Justin Kirkland beat Rebels netminder Rylan Toth high to the glove side at 13:39 and Tyson Baillie scored at 13:59 on a play that could have easily have been whistled down for goalie interference.
“We made a bad line change on one of their goals and that’s a mental mistake,” said Sutter. “I didn’t think we were sharp at all in the second period.”
Red Deer captain Conner Bleackley pulled his team even at 5:29 of the third period, skating into the low slot and burying a perfect pass from Connor Gay, who showed great patience waiting for his linemate to get into a prime shooting position.
The clubs battled through a scoreless final 14 minutes and change of the third period and through the five-minute overtime before Bowey beat Toth through the pads as the Rockets’ fourth man up in the shootout.
“The third period was probably our best period,” said Sutter. “We just did a lot of better things. Our details were much better and the high-quality scoring chances we were giving up in the second weren’t there in the third.”
Toth, who made 36 saves through 65 minutes — including several of the splendid variety — turned aside the first three Rockets shooters during the skills competition before Bowey ended the contest. Kelowna netminder Jackson Whistle, meanwhile, denied Red Deer shooters Adam Musil, Brooks Maxwell, Presten Kopeck and Gay.
“Obviously the shootout is something we have to continued to work on,” said Sutter. “We’ve scored one goal in our last 20 shooters, it’s tough to win shootouts like that. It’s just a matter of bearing down and capitalizing on those opportunities.”
Bowey said his shootout winner was by design.
“It’s a move I’ve been practising lately,” he explained. “I saw a little opening. I kind of fanned on it but it went in.”
The Rockets’ on-ice leader, who along with teammate Josh Morrissey, won gold with Team Canada at the recent world junior championship, was impressed with the Rebels.
“They play a very structured game,” said Bowey. “Any team coached by Sutter is going to be a team that works hard and we expected that. It was a full 65 minutes of hard work and hard hockey.”
The Rockets have lost just twice in regulation time away from their home rink this season.
“Right now we’re doing some good things on the road and it’s nice to see contributions from everyone in the lineup,” said Bowey. “That’s awesome to have on the road, for sure.”
The single point moved second-place Red Deer two up on the Calgary Hitmen in the Central Division. Perhaps as importantly, salvaging a point against the cream of the WHL crop confirmed that the Rebels are a top team in their own right.
“Obviously Kelowna is a very good team,” said Sutter. “But again, it shows that when we play to our expectations, to the standards that we expect from ourselves as a hockey team and our work ethic and compete level is where it needs to be, we can play with anybody in this league.”
• Toth took goals away from Baillie, Leon Draisaitl, Merkley, Tomas Soustal and Tyrell Goulbourne during one of his finest performances of the season. Whistle finished with 24 saves . . . The Rebels were minus the services of power forward Evan Polei, who suffered a lower body injury in Saturday’s win over visiting Vancouver and will be out six to eight weeks . . . Kopeck nearly scored an own goal during a strange third-period play. After being tripped by Morrissey, Kopeck, while still down, directed the puck back to the blueline, but instead it rolled down the ice and hit the post with Toth already at the bench due to the delayed penalty call . . . The Rebels host the Edmonton Oil Kings and Prince Albert Raiders Friday and Saturday.