The first round of the WHL Playoffs is another chance to dance for the Red Deer Rebels and Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Just five points and five wins separated the two teams in the Central Division thus setting up a different scenario from the David versus Goliath matchup of the 2017 Eastern Conference quarter-final.
The Hurricanes held a 22-point advantage over the Rebels in the regular season standings last year. Red Deer was not afforded much of a chance to earn a win in the series, let alone four.
Yet the underdog Rebels stole the opening game on the road before back-to-back wins at home, including a double overtime thriller in Game 3.
The Hurricanes rallied to win Game 5 and 6 and closed out the series by knocking off the Rebels 6-2 in Lethbridge in Game 7.
“We’ve got guys that are on our team from last year that I hope don’t have short memories. They gotta help through this,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter.
“I know it’s a whole new year and both teams are different than they were a year ago, the reality is they beat us last year in playoffs and there’s gotta be a fire in everyone’s belly to dig in harder this year.”
Rebels veteran Brandon Hagel, 19, is one of those players who will be relied upon to soothe the ache of last year’s playoff loss.
He had seven goals and an assist in the series last year.
Hagel suited up for 24 playoff games in his WHL career, including several at the Memorial Cup on home ice in 2016.
While that experience drives him, Hagel said he hopes to play a big part in writing a better ending to the series with Lethbridge this time around.
“There’s a few guys on our team that played this series last year,” said Hagel. “We don’t have short memories. It’s going to be a good series. We’re both pretty good hockey teams so I’m excited to get it started.”
Hagel, along with Mason McCarty and Kristian Reichel, will be the biggest source of offence for Red Deer.
McCarty led the team in goals with 38, while Reichel had 34. Hagel finished the year with 59 points in 56 games and combined the trio had 90 of the team’s 209 goals.
“We had a little success at the end of the season but that’s over with now. Hope we can carry it on,” Hagel said.
“Anything can happen now – totally different game in playoffs. Just gotta pick ourselves up and we’ll be good.”
Up front, Lethbridge will also be completely different from the 2017 playoffs without the dynamic scoring threat of Tyler Wong and Giorgio Estephan.
The Hurricanes get most of their offence this time around through captain Jordy Bellerive, who scored 46 times in 72 games and should team up with veteran Brad Morrison for the playoff push.
Lethbridhe rookie Dylan Cozens, 17, had 52 points in 57 games and was the WHL Eastern Conference Rookie of the Year.
Hurricanes blueliner Calen Addison is another key to their attack. He was top 10 in defenceman scoring across the WHL.
Rebels netminder Riley Lamb, who played all seven playoff games against the Hurricanes last year, and in five of six contests this year, said depth on both sides will play a large role in the series.
“They have a couple pretty good players. We’re just going to need to shut down those guys,” he said. “They have good players, we have good players, it’s just going to come down to who gets the breaks and who doesn’t.”
Depth players like former Hurricane Josh Tarzwell, along with Brandon Cutler, Chris Douglas and Alex Morozoff could make the difference for Red Deer.
Rebels captain Grayson Pawlenchuk brings the highest playoff pedigree to the table with 24 playoff contests under his belt along with 282 regular season games. Beyond him and Hagel, the Rebels are relatively inexperienced up front.
Defenceman Colin Paradis has played in 12 post-season games and both Carson Sass and Ethan Sakowich have 15 playoff games between them. Dawson Barteaux and Jacob Herauf each played in a handful last year.
Inexperience aside and despite four regular-season season losses in six games to the Hurricanes, there was hope down the stretch for Red Deer.
A pair of key victories in the series during the final month of the season suggests the scales of the battle have tipped.
Combine that with a Hurricanes team that went 2-8 in their last 10, including a loss to the Rebels in Lethbridge for the first time in three years, the Rebels have some hope for a series victory.
“You have to reset going into the playoffs,” Lamb said.
“It’s still nice to be riding a wave into the playoffs. Just knowing that your game is pretty high right now. Whole different time of year. Not like the regular season.”
The series kicks off in Lethbridge on March 23 and 24, before shifting to Red Deer for games three and four on March 27 and 28.