If last year means anything the Red Deer Optimist Rebels will have their hands full with the Vancouver NW Giants in the Pacific Region midget AAA hockey playoffs, which open Friday at the Burnaby Winter Club.
Last year the two met in the best-of-three series at the Red Deer Arena and the Rebels needed to come from behind to win the series 2-1 and advance to the Telus Cup.
“They’ll be tough,” said Rebels head coach Doug Quinn. “Last year they gave us everything they had and this year’s team is highly skilled with a lot of offence.”
The Giants have the top two scorers in the B.C. Midget Hockey League in returnee Alex Kerfoot and 15-year-old Sam Reinhart, whose brother Griffin was the team’s top defenceman last year. Griffin is with the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL this season.
Kerfoot had 36 goals and 72 assists in 38 games while Reinhart, a first round pick of the Kootenay Ice in last year’s WHL bantam draft, had 38 goals and 40 helpers in 34 games.
At one time that wouldn’t have been that significant, but the B.C. league, which was established in 2004, has gotten stronger over the years.
“Their league is definitely improving all the time and they (Giants) have a strong tradition having won the league the last three years,” said Quinn.
The Giants have only four players back from last year in forwards Mitch Fyffe and Kerfoot and rearguards Austin Barr and Geoffrey Soo.
“I think it’s the same in every midget league where teams are rebuilding year to year,” added Quinn. “The players are at an age where they do move up.”
The Giants won the B.C. title, beating the Cariboo Cougars 4-3 and 6-2 in their final while Red Deer needed four games to dispose of the Leduc Oil Kings in the best-of-five Alberta Midget Hockey League final.
One of the strengths of the Rebels this season has been their ability to win on the road.
“Going into their rink will be difficult, but I think the way we play with a lot of balance, good defence and strong goaltending it doesn’t matter where we play,” said Quinn. “It’s a matter of playing our game.”
The Reels go into the series relatively healthy.
“We have the normal bumps and bruises, but everyone is ready to go,” said the veteran coach, who isn’t worried about playing a short series.
“There’s no margin of error, but that’s the same for both clubs,” he said. “Last year we lost the first game and came back. It is what it is.”
The Rebels may have more balance up front than the Giants as they spread their scoring out over all four lines. Team captain Connor Hartley led the team in scoring over the regular season and the playoffs. He had 23 goals and 20 assists in 34 regular season games and eight goals and four helpers in 11 playoff games. Dylan Hollman, who missed much of the first half of the regular season with an ankle injury, had a solid playoff with nine goals and two assists in 11 starts. Nick Glackin had four goals and six assists.
Goaltender Tanner Jaillet led the AMHL in the playoffs with a sparkling 1.90 goals-against-average and a .921 save percentage.
• The games go Friday at 8:30 p.m. (MDT), Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday, if necessary, at 3 p.m. . . . The winner advances to the Tellus Cup in St. John’s, Nfld.