Rebels face important test against division foes

The WHL Central Division is tighter than bark on a tree.

Five teams within eight points of top spot, two are four points out and one is three off the pace.

Right now, it is the Edmonton Oil Kings out front, with two straight victories and a 27-15-4-4 record. That’s 62 points in 50 games, three points up on the Red Deer Rebels who have 59 points with 47 games played.

Lethbridge and Medicine Hat, each with 48 games played have 58 points and the Calgary Hitmen with four straight wins and seven in their last 10, have 54 points.

The dizzying log jam will be made even more fun down the stretch. For the Rebels, of their final 21 games, nine are against divisional opponents. Their final five games of the season are all within the central division.

Which also makes the two divisional games this weekend for Red Deer, who has lost three of its last five, vitally important.

It has been essentially a dead heat with the Hurricanes this season, who they play Friday. They’ve each won twice in four meetings. Red Deer has a shootout win an overtime loss and each team has a regulation win in their last two meetings.

Combine that with the tight division and you’re essentially playing playoff hockey in February.

Captain Reese Johnson said his group always gets up for games against the Hurricanes and at this time of year the tension only rises.

“Especially Lethbridge, we have some pretty good battles with them in their barn and ours too. It’s not a hard one to get up for in a good divisional game like that,” Johnson said.

The captain added that despite the mini see-saw stretch they’ve had over the last five games, there’s a simple fix to get back on track. It’s something that during stretches they’ve done well this season, but not consistently enough.

“Outcompeting and playing good as a team. Playing to our structure and sticking to the game we know,” he said.

“The game that makes us successful, putting pucks in deep and getting hard on the forecheck, things like that.”

Outside those aspects, the Rebels power play has been virtually lifeless since Alex Alexeyev was injured on Jan. 19. Red Deer scored on one chance in seven tries in a win against Calgary sans Alexeyev, but haven’t scored in their last 12 opportunities.

At times with Alexeyev out, Brent Sutter has gone with five forwards on the power play. That might be something to consider as Alexeyev’s absence extends into mid-February.

Johnson pointed to the power play against Brandon Wheat Kings as a somewhat encouraging sign. The scoring chances were there, including a glorious chance staring points leader Brandon Hagel in the face, but still, they couldn’t capitalize.

“We just gotta capitalize on our opportunities. We had lots of chances and keeping it simple is one thing, too,” he said.

“Putting pucks on net and getting lots of traffic.”

After the trip to Lethbridge, the Rebels host the Calgary Hitmen Saturday.

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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