CALGARY — The Red Deer Rebels have to tweak their training program.
Physically, the Western Hockey club is fit. But, as Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin was reminded on Sunday afternoon at the Saddledome, the team has to get mentally stronger.
The Rebels carried momentum and a 2-1 lead into the third period, then watched the Calgary Hitmen strike for two goals down the stretch and secure a 3-2 victory in their home-opener.
The visitors failed to generate a scoring chance in a scoreless first period and in fact were credited with just a single shot, but gradually picked up steam in the middle stanza and carried the play through the final 10 minutes. During an eventful two-minute stretch in the period, Cass Mappin took a feed from Willie Coetzee and threaded a backhand past Hitmen netminder Michael Snider, Ian Schultz replied for Calgary by beating Rebels stopper Darcy Kuemper high, and Nathan Green restored Red Deer’s lead, converting Nick Bell’s cross-ice pass.
But it all came tumbling down for the Rebels in the final 20 minutes, a span in which they managed just two shots on goal while surrendering nine.
“We just broke,” said Wallin. “We were in full control of the hockey game and we got a little bit tentative. We stopped forechecking the way we were, our defence started to get tentative and all of a sudden they (Hitmen) had a bit more room and started coming at us.”
To add injury to insult, two of Red Deer’s older players — Brett Ferguson and Colin Archer — were somewhat at fault on the tying and winning goals. Ferguson was victimized for a turnover that led to Tyler Fiddler’s slapshot tally, and Archer was serving a high-sticking minor when 20-year-old Joel Broda, a 53-goal sniper in ‘08-09 and just freshly back from the AHL, scored the winner from the high slot with 5:46 remaining in the contest.
“We had full control of the neutral zone just prior to the tying goal. We’ve talked about just keeping it simple in those situations, but we turn it over and it ends up in our net,” said Wallin, in an exasperated tone.
“Same thing on the high-sticking play. The goaltender (Kuemper) has the puck behind the net, we don’t communicate and end up jammed behind the net and take a stupid penalty. Then we lose coverage on the penalty kill.
“We played with them (Hitmen) for two periods and had control of the hockey game. We were playing a good road game to that point, limiting their opportunities. We have to develop that mental toughness to just continue to stay with the game plan and stick with the program regardless of the situation.”
The Rebels aren’t likely to pull out many victories with 15 shots, the total they aimed at Sninder on Sunday. Wallin is fully aware of that, but he’s also cognisant of the fact that the Hitmen have enough weapons to strike for a half dozen goals or more if they’re not held in check.
So, in essence, the Rebels sacrificed offence for defence, and it nearly paid off.
“There weren’t many (scoring) opportunities either way today, but that’s the way it is sometimes,” said Wallin. “Calgary has a high-offence team and with Broda just back they have two pretty good scoring lines. We really focused on shutting those guys down and did a good job of that through the first two periods.”
The Rebels coach is confident that he has the horses capable of carrying the tight-fisted act through 60 minutes, with, of course, a few goals thrown in.
“No question, we just have to be mentally tougher and it has to come from the older guys,” said Wallin. “They have to show some leadership and set the tone and be the guys who are doing things right on the ice.
“The good news is if we do that we can play with anybody. Calgary has a good hockey team, they were wound up with this being their first game at home, and were playing with a lot of confidence. We were right there with them. The game was there for the taking and we handed it back.”
Hard-nosed Hitmen veteran Schultz is adamant that his 4-0 team can not only skate stride for stride with any WHL squad, but can dominate most. The best, he suggested, is yet to come, although he stopped short of predicting a second consecutive regular-season championship.
“We’re just trying to give the fans a preview of what is to come. We’ll only get better as a team,” he insisted. “I think if we work hard and we bring our ‘A’ game there’s nobody that can stop us. But we’ll have to come to work every night. It’s a tough league to play in and everyone is going to be gunning for us now.”
Count defenceman Cullen Morin among the players who believe the Rebels can also be a WHL force this season.
“We knew this would be a tough game. We expected that but we have to prepare ourselves better to play a full 60 minutes,” said the Red Deer rearguard.
“We have no one to blame for this loss but ourselves, but it’s not like we were outclassed or outplayed. It was all in our hands. We’ll just keep moving forward and getting mentally tougher.”
• The Rebels have lost defenceman Alex Petrovic for at least a month with a high ankle sprain. The injury occurred in practice last week.
• Red Deer is back on the road Tuesday for a four-game Eastern Conference swing that starts Wednesday in Moose Jaw.