It’s official — they’re in.
The Red Deer Rebels, Western Hockey League playoff outsiders three of the last four years, ended two straight seasons of post-season deprivation by downing the Edmonton Oil Kings 4-3 in a shootout Saturday night at Rexall Place.
The Rebels clinched with the aid of the Brandon Wheat Kings, who downed the visiting Prince Albert Raiders 5-3, leaving the Raiders with 65 points with seven games remaining, 15 points back of the Rebels.
“It was something we talked about before the game. We realized that we had the opportunity to get that ‘x’ beside our names,” Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin said Sunday. “It wasn’t guaranteed, but as long as P.A lost and we won we were in the playoffs. We couldn’t control what P.A. did, but we wanted to make sure that we did our part. I think that gave the guys a bit of motivation and it was another big win for us.
“It was nice to get it done. It means a lot to everybody, especially the guys who have been here for a year or two. It feels good. When you’ve been on the outside looking in, you appreciate it when you get there.”
And yet, the Rebels are aiming higher. Currently sitting in fifth spot in the Eastern Conference — two points clear of the Medicine Hat Tigers with a game in hand — Red Deer is only three points behind the Kootenay Ice in the race for home-ice advantage in the first post-season round.
“It’s the first step in the process and it’s great to have that (playoff berth) under our belt,” said Wallin.
“It’s nice to have that out of the way, so to speak, where you have that spot locked up. But having said that we have to keep pushing forward and we want to hit the playoffs playing as well as we can be.
“We set some goals at the start of the year and everyone in the dressing room knows what those are. We still have some things we want to accomplish, so the focus doesn’t change. We’ll continue to take it one game at a time and we all want to get where we set out to go.”
The Rebels needed a shootout marker from Landon Ferraro and three shootout saves from Kraymer Barnstable to pull out Saturday’s win after giving up a pair of unanswered third-period goals.
“It was a pretty good game. Edmonton played well. They’ve been playing well lately and had won four of their last five going into last night’s game,” said Wallin. “They were a tough team to play against. They made us earn it, but I thought we did some good things.”
The Ice opened the scoring with a five-on-three goal from Michael St. Croix, but the Rebels, playing their fifth game since Tuesday, rallied in the second period, outshooting their hosts 17-8 and getting goals from Cullen Morin, Ferraro and Willie Coetzee.
“I liked the way we responded (to Edmonton’s first-period goal) and got back and dug in,” said Wallin.
The Oil Kings, however, sniped a pair of third-period tallies to force a scoreless overtime session and the ensuing shootout. Pulling the trigger in the final 20 minutes of regulation time were Michael Burns and Sebastian Svendsen, but Edmonton fell short in the end.
“The guys were really committed to winning that game last night,” said Wallin. “You get down a goal on the road in the last game of four in five nights and sometimes it’s easy to pull your foot off the gas a bit. I thought we pushed through it and found a way. It was a hard-fought win.”
Defenceman Aaron Borejko, out several weeks with a shoulder injury, missed yet another game although Wallin is convinced that he’ll be back in uniform Wednesday versus the visiting Raiders.
“He was ready for the weekend, but he hadn’t participated in a full-contact practice and since we had enough healthy bodies we gave him a few more days off,” said the Rebels bench boss.