Never mind focusing exclusively on snaring a playoff berth.
Qualifying for the post-season square dance is, of course, the Red Deer Rebels’ main goal, but they also have their sights set on acquiring fifth spot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, currently occupied by the Medicine Hat Tigers, who are a paltry four points ahead of the Rebels and have but 10 regular-season contests remaining, four fewer than Red Deer.
“We’re trying to separate ourselves from the teams who are under us, but we’re also trying to catch the Tigers and maybe even get home-ice advantage in the playoffs,” said Rebels forward Brett Ferguson, who notched the winning goal in Saturday’s 3-1 conquest of the visiting Prince Albert Raiders.
Earning the right to host the first game of their opening playoff series would require a fourth-place finish for the Rebels, and that would appear to be an outright stretch. The Kootenay Ice currently sit in fourth spot, nine points clear of the Rebels who have just a single game in hand.
Regardless, a Red Deer squad that finished out of the playoff race each of the last two seasons and three of the past four, is quickly closing in on the privilege of playing beyond mid-March.
The Rebels have won three straight and are 8-2-0-0 in their last 10 outings. Impressive, to say the least, and the same can be said for their clutch play in back-to-back 3-1 triumphs over the Regina Pats and the Raiders, who sit ninth in the conference but can jump back into a playoff spot tonight with a win over the visiting Rebels and a Kootenay win over the Swift Current Broncos.
“It was an intense week, a real mental grind,” Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin said following Saturday’s game, reflecting back on a five-day stretch that also included a 1-0 home-ice win over the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
“I thought tonight’s game had that kind of playoff-type feel to it, that kind of atmosphere. There was a lot of intensity. There are four or five (Eastern Conference) teams fighting to get into the playoffs and two of them were here tonight. We play these guys (Raiders) again (tonight) and it’s going to be the same atmosphere there (Prince Albert).”
The Rebels survived a third-period flurry by the Raiders Saturday night, but were still deserving victors, getting a first-period goal from Daulton Siwak, the eventual second-period winner from Ferguson and a third-period insurance marker from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Craig McCallum replied for the visitors with a power-play tally in the final frame.
Besides the outstanding performance of Nugent-Hopkins and the superb play of netminder Darcy Kuemper, who stopped 35 shots, the Rebels’ highlights involved a double penalty kill of nearly two full minutes and Siwak’s first-ever WHL goal.
“That was huge, our guys did a great job on that penalty kill,” said Wallin, in reference to his club’s ability to blank the Raiders while two men short for a stretch of 1:53.
“We were in our zone the entire time and the guys stuck with it with some good blocked shots and good work in the lanes. That’s what it takes at this time of the year. (Defenceman) Cullen Morin has a huge gash on his nose, that’s paying the price and that’s what we need at this time of the year. It’s a good feeling but we just have to keep going and stay on an even keel.”
As for Siwak’s initial goal . . .
“Dallas (Rebels assistant coach Gaume) said it best in the first intermission when he said ‘I got tingles on the bench’. I think our whole bench was really excited for him,” said Wallin. “Daulton is a great young player and he’s had some opportunities this season. He’s played well for us but he’s been a little snake-bitten.
“When you’re a young guy finding your way in the league, sometimes you rush things, you don’t have the confidence to take that extra step and hang on to the puck that extra second. He’s had some really good opportunities that he just hasn’t been able to capitalize on. That’s a big weight off his shoulders and I think our whole team felt happy for him tonight.”
• The Rebels conclude their two-game East Division swing Wednesday against the Saskatoon Blades, then host the Prince George Cougars Friday at 7:30 p.m.