Playoff pressure builds as Rebels fight for final wild card spot

On a journey that started back in late September, the Red Deer Rebels have left their playoff fate to hang in balance of a few days.

There are just six games left in the WHL season for Red Deer. They are desperately clinging on to the final Eastern Conference wild card spot, with a razor-thin margin for error.

The team that’s waiting in the wings to swoop in and steal that spot, the Brandon Wheat Kings come to town Friday for a final showdown.

This stretch must have the WHL office doing cartwheels for all the drama it’s going to draw up. Red Deer sits at 68 points with six games left and the Wheat Kings also have 68 points, with only five games remaining. Also with five games left is the Medicine Hat Tigers, who sit two points up on the aforementioned teams.

“We see what’s been going on. Calgary, Edmonton and Lethbridge all clinched. We’re battling pretty hard right now. Every game is important. Especially this Friday game,” said Rebels forward Brandon Hagel, who has made the playoffs in every season since he joined the Rebels back in 2015.

“It doesn’t matter that we’re playing teams that are tied with us or ahead of us. Every game is crucial and we just have to come in– our mindset is to play the way we need to play. If we do that we have a good chance of winning.”

Red Deer, 31-25-4-2 on the year, will also play the Kootenay ICE twice more. That includes the final game of the regular season when the ICE bid farewell to their home in Cranbrook before a move to Winnipeg.

That could also be where former ICE player Brett Davis, who now applies his craft with the Rebels, might clinch his first taste of WHL playoff hockey since 2016 in Lethbridge.

“It’s been awesome. It’s super exciting to be playing for something at this time of year. It’s been super cool, I’m just taking it all in and learning a lot too, it’s been fun,” said Davis, who has 27 points in 35 games since joining the Rebels on Dec. 1.

The prospect of the postseason is an exciting one for Davis, who never really even got a sniff of it for the ICE. He played five playoff games for the Lethbridge Hurricanes in 2016. Even over the past month, while the Rebels have been fighting tooth and nail to stay in the playoff race, the 19-year-old forward has felt the excitement.

“With everything in hockey, there’s going to be pressure. I think right now our team is doing a pretty good job of handling that the right way,” said Davis, a veteran of 122 WHL games for Kootenay.

“We’re just taking it day by day. If we just stay focused on the task at hand and not get too ahead of ourselves, I think we’ll be fine.

Hagel added that in the final four home games, that pressure will only ramp up.

“We have four of our last six at home, that’s going to be huge. We have to look at that positively in the dressing room and we can’t just let that pass,” he said.

For Hagel, along with 20-year-olds Reese Johnson and Jeff de Wit, the idea of playing their final game at the Centrium on March 15, the second last game of the regular season, isn’t even an option.

“Some guys lives are on the line. Some guys careers are ending in junior. You want to do it for the guy next to you,” said Hagel, who has only made it out of the first round once, but also played in the Memorial Cup in 2016.

“It’s my last year, obviously went pretty far my first year and that was a ton of fun. I can’t express how much fun that was, even though we didn’t win, we got to play hockey until (May). Especially when you get to spend more time with your best friends. You can’t be more excited than that. I don’t want it to come to an end.”

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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