Rebels in the thick of the playoff hunt

As the Eastern Conference playoff race heats up, the Red Deer Rebels remain adamant that their own actions will determine their fate.

As the Eastern Conference playoff race heats up, the Red Deer Rebels remain adamant that their own actions will determine their fate.

The coaches are rightfully firm in their belief that nothing can be accomplished by checking the out-of-town scores on a nightly basis, and yet . . .

“You watch the scores every night and last night (Tuesday) there was a three-point game between Swift Current and Moose Jaw (a 3-2 overtime win for the Broncos) and Kootenay got a point against Brandon (in a 6-5 Wheat Kings overtime win),” said Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin, following his club’s dramatic 4-3 shootout victory over the Tri-City Americans Wednesday.

“It’s real tight and it’s going to remain that way right down to the wire. Every time you can get that second point it’s absolutely huge, no doubt about it.”

Wallin’s troops are certainly enjoying the thrill of being involved in the hunt for a post-season berth.

“We’re getting closer to the playoffs, we’re approaching 20 games left in the season and it’s a tough race,” said Rebels overage defenceman and assistant captain Cullen Morin.

“This is the first time in a while that we’ve had some excitement around Red Deer at this time of the year. The players are definitely excited about that and I hope the fans are also excited because we’re going to have to make a big push the rest of the way.”

How tight is the conference playoff race? The Rebels sit in seventh place heading into weekend games at Lethbridge Friday and at home versus Edmonton Saturday, and with the right set of circumstances, could be in sixth position come Sunday night.

Conversely, with a pair of setbacks they could conceivably find themselves in ninth place.

l Red Deer’s Jeff Einhorn is the classic Cinderella story.

The now 19-year-old was a walk-on at the Chilliwack Bruins training camp in 2007, an under-sized, undrafted, unheralded defenceman with designs on nailing down a roster berth despite facing long odds.

Of course, Einhorn made the club out of camp. The coaches were forced to keep the upstart, who impressed everyone with his determination and adept play.

The trustworthy blueliner appeared in 67 games as a rookie and two seasons later has 180 regular-season WHL contests under his belt, the most in franchise history.

“I’m very fortunate and lucky to have played 180 games in this league,” Einhorn told Eric Welsh of the Chilliwack Progress after passing Matt Meropoulis in all-time games played during Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the visiting Spokane Chiefs. “I knew ‘Mero’ played a lot of games and I didn’t know I was that close to him. It’s nice to have that now and I’ll build on it to finish the year.”

Einhorn will celebrate his 20th birthday May 12 and admitted that time has flown as he’s been having fun.

“That’s the thing with this league,” he said. “You come in as a 17-year-old and all of a sudden you’re 19 or 20. You’ve got to make the most of it when you’ve got the chance because it goes by quick.”

Einhorn has a definite backer in Bruins head coach Marc Habscheid.

“He’s done pretty well for himself and the thing with ‘Einy’ is, you know what you’re going to get,” said Habscheid. “He plays hard and he’s a good person and I’m glad that now he’s got that distinction.”

l Former Rebels netminder Michael Garnett is set to be shelled in Saturday’s Kontinental Hockey League all-star game in Minsk, Belarus.

“It’s an all-star game, so I’m sure it’s not really going to be too much fun for me,” Garnett, with a laugh, told Cory Wolfe of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. “Goalies are always kind of the butt of the joke in these things.

“But I’m looking forward to the experience and seeing who’s going to poke their head in the locker-room. It’ll be a who’s-who of the Russian hockey world, like maybe (Hall of Fame goalie Vladislav) Tretiak or (former national team coach Viktor) Tikhonov.”

Garnett, a Saskatoon native, will suit up with the Jaromir Jagr-led import team against a crew led by Alexei Yashin.

In KHL play, the 27-year-old stops pucks for MVD HC, a team based in Balashikha, near Moscow. He’s in his second year with the club, which represents the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

As a result of the team’s affiliation, Garnett carries a state-issued badge and enjoys some of the benefits common to police officers, border guards and secret service agents, he told Wolfe.

“I have a badge that says I’m part of the agency, which is pretty cool,” said Garnett during a phone interview. “If you’re in a taxi or in a car with friends, there are random stop-checks. But if you show them the badge, they wave you on your way.

“It’s not like we’re made men or anything, but it definitely helps.”

Garnett is in his second season with MVD HC after a five-year stint in North America that included 24 games with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2005-06. Through 39 games with his KHL team he has a 2.13 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage.

Garnett headed overseas in 2007 and signed with HC Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk of the Russian Super League. But being located 1,000 kilometres east of Moscow was difficult and he eagerly accepted the opportunity to ink a deal with MVD HC a year later, in the KHL’s first season.

“I’ve been able to have a lot more normal life than was possible when I first came over here,” he said. “I can go out and do pretty much anything I want in Moscow — go to restaurants or the grocery store — it’s a lot better lifestyle. I’m a lot more comfortable than I was when I was out in the middle of nowhere.”

Garnett played in 21 games with the Rebels in 2000-01, posting a 14-5-1 record with a 2.07 goals-against average and .905 save percentage. He was part of a multi-player transaction with the Saskatoon Blades at the trade deadline, a deal that helped Red Deer win the Memorial Cup that season.

Just notes: Tri-City star forward Brendan Shinnimin has been suspended for one game due to being assessed a misconduct at the conclusion of the overtime period in Wednesday’s loss to the Rebels. He’ll sit out tonight’s road game against the Edmonton Oil Kings . . . Saskatoon defenceman Curt Gogol underwent hand surgery Thursday and will miss up to six weeks. The Blades are already minus rearguard Teigan Zahn (out for the season with a broken leg) and forward Curtis Hamilton (broken collarbone, indefinite) . . . Portland Winterhawks’ Ian Curtis is the CHL goaltender of the week after recording a goals-against average of 1.00 and save percentage of .976 in two victories — 6-1 over Seattle and 3-1 over Vancouver . . . Last Sunday’s postponed game between the Kootenay Ice and host Regina Pats has been rescheduled for Monday. The game was called off due to poor road conditions between Saskatoon — where the Ice were stranded after losing at Prince Albert the night before — and the Saskatchewan capital . . . Defenceman Luca Sbisa is expected to make his debut with the Portland Winterhawks tonight against the Everett Silvertips. Sbisa, acquired from Lethbridge at the trade deadline, suffered an abdominal injury while playing for Switzerland at the world junior hockey championship and was expected to be unavailable to the ‘Hawks until after the Vancouver Olympics, in which he’ll suit up for his home country.

gmeachem@bprda.wpengine.com