Eyes on nationals

It will no longer be good enough just to be one of the best teams in Alberta — the Red Deer Midget AAA Optimist Rebels had proved they were that by Christmas.

Connor Hartley and the Red Deer Optimist Rebels will open their playoffs against the Calgary Flames on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

Connor Hartley and the Red Deer Optimist Rebels will open their playoffs against the Calgary Flames on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

It will no longer be good enough just to be one of the best teams in Alberta — the Red Deer Midget AAA Optimist Rebels had proved they were that by Christmas.

Now they are out to prove they are among the best in the country.

“Our next goal is to see if we can get on a run and win the whole thing,“ said Rebels head coach Doug Quinn. “We’ve played all the teams and I know we match up with anybody. A lot of it depends on what team shows up that day and how the goaltending holds up, but certainly our goal is to take it right to the end.”

This year the midget AAA national championship — the Telus Cup — is in Lévis, Que. — across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City — April 19-25.

The Rebels skated away with first place in the ultra-competitive Alberta Major Hockey League South Division with a 21-9-5 record for 47 points — the Calgary Buffaloes were second with 38 points while the Medicine Hat Tigers missed the post-season dance in seventh with 32 points.

Top spot gave the Rebels a first-round bye and they will now face the sixth place Calgary Flames (14-14-7) who swept the Calgary Royals in their opening best-of-three series.

The Rebels will open their best-of five division semifinal against the Flames on Thursday at the Arena at 7:30 p.m. Quinn says it should be a good series to take in.

“They are certainly a good team,” he said. “The difference between most teams in our division isn’t much. They work pretty hard and they have a lot of structure in their game, so we match up, I think, pretty good. It will be pretty tight checking — they play their systems as tight defensively as any team we’ve played and they’ve got a pretty good goaltender.

“I am looking forward to how my team does. We have good depth at forward, we can roll all four lines and I’m looking forward to a good challenge for us.”

At the forefront, as in any hockey playoff, will be goaltending.

All season the Rebels have platooned Mac Engel and Travis Weber and both had respectable seasons — Engel went 13-4-2 with a .913 save percentage and a 2.43 G.A.A., while Weber was 8-5-3 with a 0.901 save percentage and a 2.92 G.A.A. — but the carousel will end with the playoffs and they will ride Engel as long as they can.

“I told them at the start of the year that for the most part I was going to rotate them, but into the playoffs its a different scenario . . . if he keeps playing well he’ll probably keep playing,” said Quinn. “Mac has had a pretty strong year and is who I am probably going to run with.

“They both played well most of the year. Mac has probably been a little more consistent, but Travis’ last two or three games have been very good. So if something happens I certainly don’t have a problem going to the other guy.”

The other big concern for the Rebels heading into the playoffs is their offence.

While they led the South with 146 goals, they were prone to going cold for stretches, and in a short series that can prove deadly.

“Very rarely do we get outshot in a game, but there’s been a handful of times where we get behind early and run into a hot goaltender and haven’t been able to get back into it,” said Quinn. “For the most part when we’ve come up against a team or a game where there’s been a bit of pressure or the challenge of playing one of the best teams we seem to play very well.”

The Rebels’ top scorer this year was Brett Printz who finished with 17 goals and 17 assists for 34 points in 34 games, while Collin Valcourt was right there with 32 points (17g,15a) in 30 games and Clayton Petrie totaled 31 points (16g,15a) in 34 games.

Carter Page led the Flames with 28 points (15g,13a), and barring injury expect Cole Cheveldave (9-9-2, 0.898 save percentage, 2.70 G.A.A) to get the nod in the Calgary net.

The Rebels turned over almost their complete roster heading into the season with only a couple of returning players, but Quinn is not concerned about experience, saying they have proven they can handle things at this level.

“The kids have adjusted to the league and we’ve got good balance,” said Quinn. “We have some kids that have stepped up a little bit more than others — my defence has really solidified over the season and I’ve got good balance on forward.”

jaldrich@bprda.wpengine.com

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