The new-look Red Deer Rebels resembled the old-look Rebels for a brief stretch in the third period Wednesday and the lapse proved costly.
The Calgary Hitmen scored goals 26 seconds apart in the third period and hung on for a 2-1 Western Hockey League win before a recorded gathering of 4,305 at the Centrium.
“I thought in the third period we had moments where we let some old habits trickle in,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “We were on our heels trying to protect the lead instead of staying on our toes and going after it.
“We gave up a couple of tough goals but those are things we have to continue to work on with the group. There’s a certain way we need to play and a certain way we want the group to play and they have to get into a habit of doing it for 60 minutes.”
That being said . . .
“Obviously the team we played tonight is a very good team, but we hung right in there.”
Indeed they did. In fact, one could argue that the Rebels were the better squad for more than their share of the contest.
But that was small consolation to a Red Deer squad that broke a scoreless tie with Joel Hamilton’s third of the season just 42 seconds into the final frame, then watched Hitmen forwards Brooks Macek and Victor Rask connect at 5:46 and 6:12.
Macek’s goal actually went off the stick of Rebels defenceman Haydn Fleury, who made a swiping motion and watched the puck slip under netminder Bolton Pouliot. While he was otherwise outstanding and finished with 29 saves, it was a goal Pouliot would have liked back.
“Bolts played a really good game for us and yet again that first goal they got . . . that’s something that we have to work on with Bolts. You can’t let in a goal like that,” said Sutter.
“But that’s all a part of it, a part of the process. We’ve lost one game in regulation time in our last 11 games and that’s not something we can say anything truly negative about. We have to recognize the good things we did here tonight and also recognize the things we need to continue to work on and get better at.”
On the next shift following Macek’s marker, Victor Rask cruised to the front of the net, took a pass from Cody Sylvester and beat Pouliot with a high shot. The Rebels had their chances to pull even down the stretch. Conner Bleackley rang a shot off the post following a brilliant toe-drag move in the low slot and Hitmen netminder Chris Driedger came up big on another Red Deer opportunity with just over a minute remaining and Pouliot on the bench.
“Calgary is a real good team and they’ve shown that throughout the year,” said Hamilton, who opened the scoring when he slipped a shot under Driedger after taking a nifty feed from a falling Tyson Ness.
“Tonight we realized we can’t take one shift or two shifts off in a game and that’s what beat us tonight. We didn’t have a 60-minute effort and good teams like that will capitalize on it.”
Still, the Rebels outshot their guests 36-31 and might have deserved a better fate.
“They (Hitmen) have a big back end and they’re strong defensively,” said Hamilton. “There’s a lot of guys who can block shots but tonight we got the puck to the net a lot. We used our speed down low and they weren’t able to keep up with us at times and that’s probably why we had the chances we did.”
Hitmen head coach Mike Williamson agreed that the game could have gone either way.
‘I thought both teams had some chances to score and both goalies played extremely well,” he said. “Red Deer threw a ton of pucks and some nights they probably would have been rewarded earlier. But our goalie played well and we got a bit of puck luck and found a way to get a couple.
“Red Deer worked extremely hard and you could tell they have a ton of confidence. We knew that coming in, that’s what we saw when we pre-scouted them and that’s what we heard from different people. Confidence and trust can go a long way with teams.”
The game marked the WHL regular-season debut for forward Adam Musil, the Rebels’ first pick in this year’s bantam draft. The 15-year-old looked right at home skating on the third line.
“For a 15-year-old kid playing his first game of major junior hockey, I thought he played really well,” said Sutter, who will likely keep the youngster for Friday and Saturday home games versus Victoria and Kelowna.
“He’s a natural centre and we have him playing wing right now and I thought he handled it all really well. He’s a big strong kid who skates well and you can tell he’s a really smart player.”
• The Rebels were minus the services of defenceman Mathew Dumba and No. 1 goaltender Patrik Bartosak, who are attending the Canadian and Czech Republic world junior selection camps, as well as injured forwards Cory Millete and Jesse Miller.
Sutter dealt forwards Marc McCoy and Filip Vasko to the Regina Pats earlier in the day for 18-year-old forward Dominik Volek, who will join the Rebels after Christmas.
• Advocate’s three stars: (1) Driedger . . . 35 saves, enough said; (2) Pouliot . . . equally as sharp as his counterpart; (3) Rask . . . big Swede was Calgary’s best skater and potted the winner.