Special teams are a special part of a successful team’s arsenal, as the Red Deer Rebels are being reminded after several lean Western Hockey League seasons.
It’s no coincidence that the Rebels, who with a 20-7-1-2 record sit first in the Central Division and are tied with Saskatoon for top spot in the Eastern Conference, boast top-five numbers in both categories — power play and penalty killing.
Red Deer’s penalty kill is ranked third overall at 85.3 per cent, with the power play coming in fifth at 21.7 per cent. Last season, the club struggled somewhat during man-advantage situations and finished 16th at 17.7 per cent, but the penalty kill was respectable with an 80.6 per cent success rate, good for ninth overall at the end of the season.
“Our penalty kill has come a long way, although I thought it was very good last year,” Rebels head coach/vice-president of hockey operations Jesse Wallin said Tuesday.
“We made some adjustment to it a couple of months into last season where we spent a lot of time on it and changed a few things.
“We didn’t really change a lot, but just really focused on a few simple details, and that really helped to get it going in the right direction.
“Now we’ve had some consistency in personnel and we try to spread that ice time out a bit, using different guys killing penalties and on the power play, in most cases.”
Netminder Darcy Kuemper, who possesses a miniscule goals-against average of 1.71 and a lofty .937 save percentage — both league-best marks, as are his 20 wins and five shutouts — has clearly been a big part of the Rebels’ penalty kill success.
“He’s our best penalty killer. You hear that quite often about goalies and that has to be the case,” said Wallin, who likes Kuemper’s ability to handle the puck.
“If a team dumps the puck in poorly and he’s able to play it, he keeps us out of a pressure situation by moving the puck down the ice,” the coach added.
“He’s done a tremendous job of that. If you can get the puck 200 feet down the ice without allowing the other team to get a forecheck and get pressure going in the offensive zone . . . every time he does that it’s 20 to 25 seconds off the clock.”
The Rebels’ man-advantage success is due to the club’s talent and intelligence levels, said Wallin.
“We’ve been able to try some different things and we’ve made some adjustments to our power play this season,” he noted.
“One thing we’ve tried to do is throw some different challenges at our guys, not just keep things the same. We throw some different looks at them to challenge them and keep things fresh, and they seem to kind of strive on that.
“Smart players can make adjustments easily and make adjustments on the fly, whether it’s with our breakouts or entries into the zone. It’s a fun group to coach.”
The off-season acquisition of veteran forward Byron Froese made Red Deer’s power play that much better.
“We weren’t exactly sure of where he was going to fit (on the power play) when we brought him in,” said Wallin. “We knew we were getting a good passer and he ended up playing the point out of necessity. We felt we needed a guy on the back end who could move the puck.
“His shot has been a real big asset, he has a great one-timer and he shoots it hard. He’s a smart guy with good vision, he’s able to decide when to shoot and when to move the puck, and he has the ability to get pucks to the net. He’s certainly upgraded our power play, no question.”
• The Rebels host the Kelowna Rockets and the Regina Pats Saturday and Sunday.
• Red Deer will be featured twice on Rogers Sportsnet broadcasts in the new year — Feb. 23 versus the Kootenay Ice at the Centrium and March 13 against the host Calgary Hitmen.