Hitmen 5 Rebels 1
CALGARY — The Red Deer Rebels picked a bad time to go AWOL.
The Rebels seemed to be stuck in neutral all evening and dropped a 5-1 decision to the Calgary Hitmen, who closed out the best-of-seven WHL Eastern Conference semifinal Thursday in front of 6,416 fans at the Saddledome.
The Hitmen, who won the series 4-1, will meet the defending league champion Edmonton Oil Kings in the conference final.
“There was no push on our part tonight. Our play wasn’t up to standard,” said a disheartened Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter.
“There has to be a lot of urgency and desperation in a situation like this and we just didn’t have that tonight.
“To be quite honest, as coaches we were shocked by it.
“Because the (earlier) games were all tight, we thought we would really make that push to get the series back to Game 6 in our building.”
Instead, the Rebels’ season came to a grinding conclusion.
“We just had a lot of guys who might have played their worst game of the playoffs,” said Sutter.
After recording seven shots in the opening period, the visitors managed just 10 the rest of the way, including a measly two in the second period — the first of which came nearly 14 minutes into the frame.
Of course, it didn’t help that the power plays were 8-3 in favour of the Hitmen.
“We didn’t have anyone going tonight. We didn’t have control of the puck and we took a lot of penalties,” said Rebels captain Turner Elson. “Just nothing was going for us tonight.”
The Hitmen opened the scoring with a bad goal on Rebels netminder Patrik Bartosak, who couldn’t squeeze a shot from above the circle by Greg Chase and had the puck trickle through his pads just 2:32 into the contest.
After Elson pulled Red Deer even 61 seconds later — breaking over the blueline, taking a drop pass from Brooks Maxwell and, from his off wing, beating netminder Chris Driedger — the Hitmen took advantage of poor clearing attempts to take a 3-1 lead.
Zane Jones, stationed in front of the net, redirected a shot past Bartosak midway through the first period, and Calder Brooks netted a power-play tally early in the middle frame while unchecked in the low slot.
“They were all bad goals,” said Sutter. “We’ve worked with the kids all season about things you can’t do in the defensive zone . . . putting pucks in the middle of the ice on the backhand.
“Their second and third goals were soft because guys couldn’t get the puck out (of the zone).”
The Hitmen sealed the deal with a pair of empty-net goals — courtesy of Spencer Humphries and Elliott Peterson — in the final two minutes of the game. With Calgary forward Jake Virtanen serving a tripping infraction, Bartosak was on the bench in favour of a two-man advantage.
Driedger, who was big-time busy in Games 3 and 4 in Red Deer, appreciated his teammates’ defensive performance.
“In the second period I had two shots and I think one was after the whistle,” said the Hitmen stopper. “Yeah, this was definitely a change.
“I just needed to make sure I was staying on the ball. That was the challenge for me, but it was nice to kind of have a night off.”
Driedger felt the outcome was due to a combination of a so-so outing by the Rebels and a solid effort by his club.
“It might have been a bit of both,” he suggested. “The Rebels played well but we came out pretty hard. We just wanted to close out the series, we didn’t want to go back to Red Deer. We played a full 60 (minutes) tonight.”
It was as if the Rebels never recovered from a 3-2 overtime loss in Game 4 Tuesday at the Centrium.
“But that’s a pride thing. It’s playoffs and you’re not going to win every game in overtime,” said Sutter. “We just weren’t there tonight, and again, some guys really struggled. Probably the majority.
“We played hard in the earlier games in the series, but the will to want to keep pushing wasn’t where it had to be tonight, and that’s what leaves a sour taste in your mouth.”
After giving up the soft opening goal, Bartosak was excellent the rest of the way. He finished with 29 saves, including several of the stunning variety.
But he couldn’t work a miracle.
“This wasn’t the way I wanted my last (WHL) game to go, but I’m proud of the guys and what they’ve done all year,” said the 20-year-old Elson, who has a pro contract with the Calgary Flames.
“We battled from eighth place to fourth place (in the conference) and made it past the first round of playoffs. There are a lot of good, young players on this team and this was a good learning experience for them.
“The Rebels are going to be a dominant team next year. You’ll have to watch out for the Red Deer Rebels next year.”