Brandon Wheat Kings defenceman Chad Nychuk tries to defend Rebels forward Chris Douglas on a zone entry in the first period of WHL action at the Centrium earlier this season. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)

Game Preview: Rebels battle Wheat Kings for last wild card spot

In the big picture, there is nothing unique about a March visit from the Brandon Wheat Kings.

They arrive in Red Deer Friday for the fourth and final meeting between the two clubs – only this time the game has massive playoff implications.

A Rebels win means a split of the season series and also moves them two points up on Brandon for the last wild card spot with five games left on the season.

In their last game on Jan. 30, when the Wheat Kings picked up a dominant 4-0 shutout in Red Deer, it was the start of a pretty significant slump for the Rebels. Since then, the Rebels are just 3-9-2-1.

What has been positive over the last few weeks has been the Rebels newfound commitment on the defensive side. In the last six games, they’ve only allowed three goals or more once and kept opponents to two or less in the other five.

“We have to put the pressure on,” said Rebels leading scorer Brandon Hagel.

“Our defensive game has been tremendous the last few, but the offence has to come. We have to start getting offence from everybody and guys have to start bearing down on every chance. Every chance has to go in the back of the net, especially at this time of year. Chances might happen again throughout the game. We just have to start bearing down.”

That starts with shutting down the ever-dangerous Stelio Mattheos. He seems to burn the Rebels every time out the last two seasons and is currently in the top 10 of WHL scoring with 41 goals and 92 points, so it will be a tall task. Add Luka Burzan and his 38 goals to the mix and stopping those two from hitting the scoresheet is just as important as finding their scoring touch.

“I think we have to shut down their top guys. We have to get our special teams back on point here. If we can get our power play a bit better than it has been as of late that will help a lot too,” said Rebels veteran forward Brett Davis about stopping the Wheat Kings.

“We just have to keep it simple and we’ll be fine.”

The Rebels scoring woes have been an easy target lately, as only Brandon Hagel has found the net with any consistency.

Jeff de Wit has three goals since Jan. 2 and Reese Johnson added only six to his total from Christmas break until now. Cam Hausinger also has only five since the first week of January and Davis hit twine three times in February.

While five-on-five goal scoring has been an issue, the power play struggles are glaring, too. Red Deer has slipped to 19th in the 22-team WHL at 17.4 per cent.

Add in a lack of production from secondary scoring factors like Arshdeep Bains and Alex Morozoff and it’s easy to see why the wins aren’t coming.

The schedule down the stretch is a mixed bag for the Rebels at a time when they could use a few more games against teams outside the playoff picture.

They will host the Kootenay ICE Saturday before a four-games in six days stretch to finish off the year.

The final four games for the Rebels come next week when they take on the Edmonton Oil Kings at home on March 12 and the Medicine Hat Tigers March 13 on the road. The last home regular season game is March 15 against Lethbridge, before a trip to Cranbrook to close out the season.

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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