In their first game in 12 days, the Red Deer Rebels will have their hands full.
Friday, the Rebels will open the second half against the Edmonton Oil Kings, who are the eighth-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League.
Since they last played on Oct. 17, it has been two teams trending in entirely different directions.
The Edmonton Oil Kings have settled atop the top of the WHL standings, while the Red Deer Rebels have buoyed below .500 (8-11-0-3).
Edmonton defeated the Rebels 5-1 that night, and have won 14 games since. They won three games heading into the break, outscoring opponents 15-3 and are also 8-1-1-0 in the past 10.
“Edmonton is a really good team. From their goaltending to their back and forwards. We have to make sure we’re emotionally and mentally in the game,” said Rebels assistant coach Brad Flynn.
“That we’re back to work after a great Christmas break. We keep the game very simple and do the small things that we need to do as a group, to be successful.”
Red Deer, on the other hand, has won eight games since the October matchup. Five of those came in December, during a pair of modest win streaks.
Playing simple, especially after the 11-2 drubbing by the Lethbridge Hurricanes last month, has been a major point of emphasis for the Rebels’ coaching staff. It just so happens the past few weeks, there has been more buy-in to that approach.
“If you look back at our last seven or eight games, since a tough game at home where we lost 11-2. You can’t say in any of those games we played poorly. We’ve given up a lot less shots and we’ve committed to d-zone,” Flynn said.
“We’ve simplified, and, when we do that, we give ourselves a chance to win.”
Playing that way is even more crucial with two big games out of almost a two-week break and Flynn added it’s the mental side that’s important as much as the physical skills.
“It’s about getting back to your routine quickly. Once you do that, it’s just like riding a bike,” he said.
“The real trick is getting the rust off and getting that game sense back. In terms of, everybody can stickhandle and shoot in a morning skate or practice, but it’s timing and feel of the puck–making plays under pressure that you lose when you take a week off. Even when you have a practice week, you lose that game feel.”
In his final WHL season, Oil Kings forward Riley Sawchuk is having a stellar coming out party. The 20-year-old has 14 goals and 42 points in 34 games to lead the Oil Kings. Edmonton acquired him from the Tri-City Americans in May for just a third-round WHL pick in 2021. Josh Williams and 2020 NHL draft-eligible forward Jake Neighbours are also point-per-game players halfway through the campaign.
On the Rebels side, they won a lot of games by keeping it low scoring and Arshdeep Bains leads the attack with 23 points. Red Deer product Josh Tarzwell leads the team with 14 goals.
Sebastian Cossa has been a pleasant surprise for the Oil Kings and is currently a top-three goalie in the WHL with a 2.09 goals-against average. The 17-year-old has been the bell cow for Edmonton, and he has 12 wins in 19 starts, along with a solid 0,925 save percentage.
In the Rebels net, Byron Fancy has come on of late, with wins in five of his past seven games. He’s posted a .900 save percentage over that stretch.
Puck drop is 7 p.m. at the Centrium Friday, with the Rebels playing in Edmonton Saturday before finishing off 2019 with a game Monday at home against the Everett Silvertips.