Rebels 5 Oil Kings 3
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is many things, but mostly an extraordinary hockey player.
On Friday, the slick centre was the Red Deer Rebels’ knight in shining armour, scoring the winning and insurance goals as the Rebels downed the Edmonton Oil Kings 5-3 in the opening game of a best-of-seven Western Hockey League Eastern Conference quarter-final.
Just three minutes after Michael St. Croix had connected for the visitors to draw even at 3-3, Nugent-Hopkins took a great pass from Andrej Kudrna and beat netminder Jon Groenheyde with a rising one-timer from the slot. Kudrna fed his linemate after avoiding the better part of a hit along the boards.
“He (Kudrna) just battled back after getting hit, made a second effort and found me back door. It was a really nice feed by him,” said Nugent-Hopkins, who then sniped a power-play marker 66 seconds later off a give-and-go with Kudrna.
“That’s what good players do. You rely on your top guys and they came through when we needed them tonight,” said Rebels head coach/vice-president of hockey operations Jesse Wallin. “The last power-play goal was especially huge. Our special teams were good tonight, that’s a key all year long and even moreso in the playoffs.”
Indeed, the Rebels were two-for-four on the power play and killed all four Oil Kings man-advantage opportunities.
The extra-man goals, as it turned out, were the difference in a game in which the visitors actually carried the play for long stretches, including the vast majority of the second period when the shots were 19-4 in favour of Edmonton.
The Rebels were tagged with a penalty two minutes into the middle frame and although they killed it off, were back on their heels through the next 18 minutes. Cam Abney notched the lone goal of the period to pull the Oil Kings into a 2-2 tie.
“I hate to say we were fortunate (to give up just a single goal in the second stanza), but in a sense I guess we were,” said Wallin. “They certainly had a few opportunities and we were able to get to the third period tied instead of down a goal.
“In the third period we got back to work and starting playing with a little more composure.”
Kudrna’s first goal of the playoffs provided the Rebels with a 4-3 lead 8:20 into the final frame, but the Oil Kings wouldn’t go away. St. Croix worked his way off the wall and beat Red Deer goalie Darcy Kuemper high to the glove side three minutes later, but that simply set the stage for the late heroics by Nugent-Hopkins and Kudrna.
“We kind of let off the gas in the second period but in the third we really battled back and got some bounces,” said Nugent-Hopkins.
Did the Oil Kings, who outshot their guests 37-24 overall, gain a healthy measure of self-assurance despite dropping the first game of the series, which continues tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Centrium?
“I think we let them get a little confidence in the second period,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “Tomorrow we just have to have a great start and keep on going for the full 60 and take away all the momentum and confidence they might have.”
The Rebels started relatively fast Friday, building a 2-0 lead on goals from Byron Froese and Brett Ferguson in the first 13 minutes, but Keegan Lowe responded for the Oil Kings late in the period.
“It wasn’t the prettiest game and certainly it wasn’t the way we wanted to play tonight,” said Wallin. “At times we were all right. We had a decent start and gave ourselves a lead, but made some poor puck decisions, particularly in the second period when we really put ourselves in a world of hurt.
“They did a good job of pressing hard and coming at us on the forecheck, but I also thought we made some really poor puck decisions and were a little soft around our net. The majority of their chances we gave them were a direct result of turnovers. Whatever the case, it was the first game of the playoffs and everyone was a little excited, maybe a little anxious and nervous. We’ve got the first game under our belts and I expect we’ll be a little more composed tomorrow.”