Rebels in control

The good news for the Edmonton Oil Kings is that they carried their share of the play in the first two games of their Western Hockey League Eastern Conference quarter-final with the Red Deer Rebels. The bad news?

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the Red Deer Rebels hold a commanding 2-0 lead over Mark Reners and the Edmonton Oil Kings.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the Red Deer Rebels hold a commanding 2-0 lead over Mark Reners and the Edmonton Oil Kings.

The good news for the Edmonton Oil Kings is that they carried their share of the play in the first two games of their Western Hockey League Eastern Conference quarter-final with the Red Deer Rebels.

The bad news?

They’re down 2-0 in the best-of-seven set which resumes tonight at Edmonton’s Rexall Place, and they have yet to see the Rebels’ A game, at least on a consistent basis.

The Rebels’ special teams, goaltending and superior skill and depth up front have been the differences so far. And Red Deer was clearly the better team over the last 30 minutes of Game 2, a 5-1 win Saturday night before an overflow Centrium gathering of 6,207.

“I just thought we settled down and played a little better last night,” Rebels head coach/vice-president of hockey operations Jesse Wallin said Sunday. “I think we can still be better than we were, but certainly in the second half of last night’s game we settled in. We moved the puck better and we were better defensively because we didn’t spend as much time in our end of the rink.

“Through the first game and even parts of last night, especially early in the second period, we were just turning too many pucks over and weren’t handling their pressure with the poise that we needed to. The biggest thing from here is just making sure that we’re taking care of the puck and that we’re sharp that way. When the puck is in our end we have to make sure we’re strong on our box-out and are finishing checks down low.”

The Rebels led 2-1 after one period Saturday on goals from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — his third of the series — and Daulton Siwak. Jordan Hickmott replied in the final minute of the frame for the visitors, who were blanked the rest of the way as Red Deer netminder Darcy Kuemper stopped the last 18 shots he faced and finished with 27 saves.

Adam Kambeitz notched a short-handed goal for a 3-1 lead in the second period, and Justin Weller upped the count to 4-1 at 12:38 of the final stanza when he stepped out of the penalty box, took a stretch pass from Turner Elson, broke in alone and threw a backhand deke on netminder Jon Groenheyde.

“He (Weller) always gets in with the forwards when we’re doing breakaways drills after practice. He’s been known to go backhand shelf a little bit so I wasn’t surprised when he got in there,” said forward Brett Ferguson, who collected three assists and was a beast on the Rebels’ penalty kill, which is a perfect nine-for-nine after two games.

Kambeitz fired his second goal of the game during a last-minute power play to close out the scoring. Red Deer heads into tonight’s third game at three-for-nine with a man advantage.

While the Oil Kings lacked the Rebels’ scoring punch during the first two outings, they held their own in the department of labour.

“They work hard and they have some speed up front,” said Wallin. “They’re quick on their cycle and if you take a bad angle and let a guy roll off you, then they can create things down low. It’s just a matter of maintaining good body position and taking good angles, and when you get a chance to eliminate your man, eliminate him and don’t allow him to get back into the play.”

The Rebels’ bench boss isn’t surprised that his club has been challenged by the Oil Kings.

“Come playoff time, that’s the way it is. Everybody starts at zero and it’s going to be hard fought all the way,” said Wallin. “Look at our series with Saskatoon last year. We went down in four straight but to me they were all hard-fought games. We gave up some easy goals in the first two games and then played them hard the rest of the way.

“That’s the way playoff hockey is — it’s tight-checking, hard-fought and the intensity level goes up. That’s not gong to change moving forward. We’re happy with the two wins at home. We’ve started the series on the right note, but we certainly want to continue to improve and continue to build off of our success.”

Ferguson, who was the target of praise from Wallin for his tenacious two-way play Saturday, insisted the Rebels can be markedly better than was the case in Games 1 and 2.

“We’re not confident in the fact that we haven’t been able to put together a full 60-minute effort, but we’re confident in the fact that when we do it’s going to be downright scary,” he said.

The fourth game of the series is set for Thursday at 7 p.m. at Rexall Place. A fifth game, if needed, will be played Saturday at the Centrium.

If Games 6 and 7 are required, they will go April 4 in Edmonton and April 6 in Red Deer.

gmeachem@bprda.wpengine.com