The Red Deer Rebels clinched a playoff spot and at least third place in the Central Division with a 5-2 victory over the Medicine Hat Tigers on Saturday.
On Jan. 24 the Rebels were 12 points out of a playoff position and all hope for a post-season berth appeared to be lost.
They capped off a turnaround Saturday with the win – a run of 16 victories in their last 23 contests.
“To accomplish what we accomplished says a lot about the kids in the room,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter.
“They really started believing as a group that we can have some success if we play the right way. Our focus was good and we’ve had a pretty good run here to be able to get in the position we’re in.”
Alternate captain Brandon Hagel, after struggling through an injury early on in the year completed a hat trick into an empty net with 40 seconds left in the game.
With an assist, it was the first four-point night of the season for the 19-year-old Rebels veteran. He has eight points in his last three games.
“I think we’re bearing down,” said Hagel, who earned first star honours. “This is the most important time of the year. Guys are trying to get contracts and get drafted, now is the time to show up. Now that we’re in playoffs, we just have to continue that.”
“It’s unbelievable. We fought hard in the third. The emotion was huge. Mason (McCarty) hasn’t played in playoffs. So I’m excited for him. It’s really exciting in the dressing room.”
Tigers overage defenceman Kristians Rubins opened the scoring and put Red Deer behind the eight ball early in the first.
He burned the Rebels on the power play with a one-timer bullet past Ethan Anders.
Less than a minute later, Hunter Donohoe spotted Hagel at the far post and fired a pass to the 19-year-old who redirected in his 15th goal of the season. Hagel has goals in his last three contests.
Early in the second off the rush, Tigers captain James Hamblin hit Bryan Lockner who found some daylight past Anders glove side for his 13th goal of the season.
Red Deer trailed the Tigers 2-1 after 40 minutes and showed some resiliency in battling back. The Rebels scored four unanswered third-period goals for just their sixth victory when trailing after two periods this season.
After Arshdeep Bains forced a turnover at the Tigers blueline, Kristian Reichel used a defender as a screen and fired a wrist shot high blocker past Michael Bullion to tie the game at two.
It was the 31st goal of the season for the Rebels CHL Import pick from 2017. Reichel was also just the second Rebel to eclipse 30-goal mark on the year.
With 8:05 to play captain Grayson Pawlenchuk took a delay of game penalty but the Rebels were able to kill it off.
Out of the box, Pawlenchuk made a strong defensive play to strip the puck from David Quennville and turned it up ice. Quennville hooked Hagel on a scoring chance and it proved costly for the Tigers.
Pawlenchuk controlled the puck on the power play and hit Hagel with a pass down low and the veteran for spun before he backhanded a shot underneath Bullion’s pad for his second goal of the game. The goal put the Rebels ahead for good.
Reichel converted a tic-tac-toe goal from Hagel and McCarty for his second of the night with 51 seconds left in the game.
Anders turned aside 34 shots to earn his 10th victory of the year and second star honours.
Hagel, along with Kristian Reichel and Mason McCarty continued to roll as the trio had eight points on the night.
The Rebels have just three games remaining and sit five points behind the Lethbridge Hurricanes for second in the Central Division. With that goal in mind, Sutter and the group understands work is just beginning if they hope to make a mark in the playoffs.
“You don’t want to go into playoffs limping, you want to go in on a high and playing well,” Sutter said.
The Rebels are back at home on Wednesday night when the Hurricanes are in town.