The David versus Goliath allegory is being firmly embraced by the Red Deer Rebels.
In that well-known tale of the underdog slaying the heavily favoured warrior, there is a thin thread of hope the Rebels can hang onto against the Prince Albert Raiders.
It’s an easy narrative, the little engine that could in Red Deer, losing four straight heading into the playoffs and backing into the second wild-card spot– just might be able to knock off the Scotty Munro Trophy winners in Prince Albert, who ended up 40 points clear of the Rebels this season.
Prince Albert won 21 more times then the Rebels did this season and only lost 14 total on the campaign in 68 games. Not exactly a lot of wiggle room for a Red Deer group that went 4-5-0-1 in its last 10 and 33-29-4-2 overall.
“New season, new start. Everyone starts at ground zero now. You know your matchup and you get ready for it,” said an optimistic Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter.
“Go out there and play as well as you can. The biggest thing is get into the playoffs and once you’re there, anything can happen. You have to do things right. Our details have to be good and we have to be a very disciplined team.”
— CanadianHockeyLeague (@CHLHockey) March 16, 2019
That sunny-day optimism doesn’t come out of thin air. There’s also one regular season stat that the Rebels undoubtedly remember from four games against the Raiders this season.
Back on Oct. 6, Red Deer handed Prince Albert their first loss of the WHL season, a 4-3 victory on home ice. Red Deer then lost 2-1 on Oct. 13, surrendering the go-ahead goal with five minutes left in the third. Prince Albert won 4-3 on Nov. 27 and 2-1 in a shootout on March 1. A small glimmer of hope among the cloudy outlook of most heading into the series.
“I like the way we played against them. I like our matchups against them. You know they’re a good team, but I also know we’ve played well against them,” Sutter said.
“You can’t hide in the series. You can’t have anyone not play to the level they need to play with– you can’t have anyone not play hard. If you’re hiding, it’s going to be very noticeable. We have to make sure as individuals, every guy is prepared to throw themselves in it and get engaged early and be engaged often.”
For the first time since 1985, the Raiders enter the playoffs as the top team in the WHL. They finished the regular season as the number two team across the 60-team Canadian Hockey League. They have Ian Scott in goal, just selected as the best goalie in the Eastern Conference and could be the top netminder in the CHL. Raiders bench boss Marc Habscheid was Eastern Conference Coach of the Year and GM Curtis Hunt was Executive of the Year. They broke 18 franchise records on en route to the playoffs this year.
Simply put, they’ve been a juggernaut this season. An unstoppable force.
According to Rebels veteran Jeff de Wit, all those stats and numbers that tilt the ice in the Raiders’ favour, only creates more pressure for the favourites.
“I’m excited about it. It’s easier to play when there’s less pressure,” said de Wit, who has advanced to at least the second round of the WHL Playoffs the last three seasons with each of Red Deer, Regina and Victoria last year.
“Playing against a team like PA, we’ve had solid games with them all year. We know in the room, we have the capabilities of beating them. We’re excited. It’s going to take everyone– it’s not just one guy. It will take the whole team effort and I think we’ve got the horses to do it.”
Blueliner Dawson Barteaux will be relied on heavily in the absence of Alex Alexeyev, who will miss the series with a lower-body injury. Barteaux, 19, has been with the Rebels during their last two first-round playoff exits and he echoed de Wit’s ideas about pressure.
“Gives us more of a go out and play mindset. We’re definitely an underdog and we know that,” Barteaux said.
“We don’t mind that at all. We’re excited, they’ve got all the pressure on them. It’s up to them to make the mistakes and we’re just going in there to play our hearts out.”