Special teams are crucial in the hockey world’s post-season, their importance magnified by the do-or-die urgency of the games.
The Red Deer Rebels are looking good in that department as they enter a WHL Eastern Conference quarter-final series against the Medicine Hat Tigers.
The Rebels were particularly potent while opposing teams were on the power play during the regular season, their penalty killing being the league’s second-best while operating at an 83.7 per cent success rate. Red Deer’s power play, however, wasn’t nearly as impressive, although the club has made significant strides over the past four to six weeks while playing with a man advantage.
The Rebels’ extra-man units were a combined 18.4 per cent and the power play sat 17th overall in mid-February. Since then, the specialty team has improved nearly two full percentage points and finished the season at 13th overall with a success rate of 20.2 per cent.
“We’ve continued to work on it during practices and it’s a confidence thing with the guys,” Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter said Wednesday. “Part of the problem on our power play was we were just too stationary. We’re moving around a little more now and we’re establishing shots.
“Any power play has to establish shots and we do a better job of that now. We’re also more active on the power play and to maximize that you have to make sure you have net-front presence. Plus, you can’t just have guys standing in certain areas expecting the puck to come to them. They have to be reading situations and they have to be moving and creating opportunities that way.
“Steve (assistant coach O’Rourke) has done a good job of working with the kids on that and our power play has certainly been better the last month.”
As Rebels defenceman Haydn Fleury — a big part of the team’s power play — noted, there’s been no magic formula involved in the man advantage improvement.
“There’s not really any secret, we’re just shooting pucks and putting people at the net,” he said. “Some of the goals we get aren’t the prettiest goals, but you just have to score at this point of the season and it doesn’t really matter how the puck goes in, it just needs to go in.”
Fleury also credited O’Rourke and his use of video replay for getting the power play on the right track.
“For sure, we watch lots of video and go on the ice early just to work on (the power play) and look at our options, so it’s good to have that video source,” said Fleury.
The Rebels/Tigers series opens with Games 1 and 2 Saturday and Sunday at Medicine Hat, with the third and fourth games set for April 1 and 2 at the Enmax Centrium. Additional games, if needed, will be played at Medicine Hat April 4, in Red Deer the following day and April 7 in the southern Alberta city.
The start time for Game 3 has yet to be determined since the contest may be televised.
• The WHL all-star teams were announced Wednesday and Tristan Jarry of the Edmonton Oil Kings and Jordan Papirny of the Brandon Wheat Kings are the Eastern Conference first- and second-team goaltenders. The first team defence consists of Brandon’s Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim of the Calgary Hitmen, while the forwards are Trevor Cox of the Tigers, Brandon’s Tim McGauley and Brayden Point of the Moose Jaw Warriors. The Eastern Conference second-all team also features defencemen Rinat Valiev of the Kootenay Ice and Colby Williams of the Regina Pats, and the forwards are Cole Sanford of the Tigers, Sam Reinhart of the Ice and Adam Tambellini of the Hitmen.
The Western Conference first all-star team consists of netminder Taran Kozun of the Seattle Thunderbirds, rearguards Shea Theodore of the T-Birds and Madison Bowey of the Kelowna Rockets and forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand of the Portland Winterhawks, Cole Ulley of the Kamloops Blazers and the Rockets’ Rourke Chartier. On the second team are Tri-City Americans goalie Eric Comrie, defencemen Joe Hicketts of the Victoria Royals and Josh Morrissey of the Rockets and forwards Nic Petan of Portland, Nick Merkley of the Rockets and Adam Helewka of the Spokane Chiefs.
The following are the finalists for WHL awards: Rookie of the year: Nolan Patrick, Brandon; Kailer Yamamoto, Spokane; Goaltender of the year: Jarry, Kozun; Defenceman of the year: Provorov, Theodore; Most sportsmanlike player: Peter Quenneville, Brandon; Chartier; Scholastic player: Nick McBride, Prince Albert Raiders; Joe Gatenby, Kelowna; Coach of the year: John Paddock, Regina; Dan Lambert, Kelowna; Executive of the year: Kelly McCrimmon, Brandon; Bruce Hamilton, Kelowna.
The WHL bantam draft lottery was staged Wednesday and Spokane emerged as the big winner. The Chiefs’ ball was the first drawn, giving the club the first overall pick in the May 7 draft. The Lethbridge Hurricanes will select second, followed in order by fellow non-playoff teams Vancouver Giants, Moose Jaw, Prince Albert and Moose Jaw again. The Rebels will pick 16th.