The Red Deer Rebels could approach their upcoming Western Hockey League Eastern Conference semifinal series with a sense of trepidation, considering the lack of regular-season success they enjoyed against their next playoff opponent.
On the other hand, they could be eagerly anticipating the opportunity to gain a measure of revenge at precisely the most opportune time of the year.
The Rebels, however, are taking neither approach to the second-round post-season clash with the Medicine Hat Tigers, a best-of-seven set that opens Friday and Saturday at the Centrium.
“This a completely different season, so we’re not going to look at the season series and take anything out if it and I’m sure they wont either,” veteran forward Brett Ferguson said Tuesday. “It’s a new time of year and we’re just looking forward to the challenge.”
Rebels captain and overage defenceman Colin Archer concurred.
“Its a whole different breed of animal here, the playoffs,” he insisted. “Obviously it’s in our heads that they’re a good team and that we didn’t do as well against them as we should have this season, but it’s not something we’re worried about and we’ll go into the series well prepared.”
The Tigers were 5-1 versus the Rebels during the 72-game stretch that preceded the playoffs, their success mainly due to standout goaltending and the contributions of star forwards Linden Vey and Emerson Etem.
“They have great speed, they’re quick and they’re very skilled,” said Ferguson of the Tigers, who advanced by downing the Brandon Wheat Kings 7-5 in Game 6 of a conference quarter-final Monday at Winnipeg. “They also play the game hard, but I think we have a lot of that too. It should be a great series.”
Until Monday, the Rebels didn’t know who they’d be facing in the conference semifinals, with the Tigers and the Kootenay Ice both being potential dance partners. Not that it mattered, Ferguson suggested.
“That wasn’t an issue with us. We know who we have to go through to get to where we want, this is just another team that’s in our way, trying to get to where we want to go,” he said. “We just have to make sure that we want it a little more than they do.”
The Rebels won’t necessarily draw up a separate game plan for the series opener, Ferguson added.
“We’ve said all year that it’s not what the other team does, it’s what we do. We’re just making sure that our game is where it needs to be to play (the Tigers),” he said. “Obviously, they present a different challenge than Edmonton, but we’ll make those adjustments as they come. We’ll be ready for them.”
Ferguson was also referring to the Edmonton Oil Kings, whom the Rebels dispatched in four games. The quick quarter-final conquest of their northern neighbours earned the Rebels a lengthy break, while the Tigers made two trips to Winnipeg.
“They (Tigers) had some tough travel. They played two more games than us and spent a lot of hours on the bus,” said Ferguson. “We’ve been kind of sitting here just getting ready for the next round, and I think the extra time off is going to be huge as we go further into the series.”
The Rebels wrapped up their quarter-final set with Edmonton last Thursday, giving them a full seven days to prepare for the second round.
“Having a week off is different, not something you’re used to when you’re mostly playing every weekend during the regular season,” said Archer. “We knew we wanted to get that first series over as soon as we could and the consequence is we had a long break, but that’s not a problem. It gives us a little more rest and a little more time to tighten things up.”
That being said, the Rebels are anxious and ready to roll.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun. This is a playoff rivalry that hasn’t been seen for a few years,” said Archer. “There have been some good series between these two teams in past years. It’s going to be crazy in here (Centrium) and it’s going to be fun.”
“It’s going to be intense, no question,” added Rebels head coach/vice-president of hockey operations Jesse Wallin. “They’re a rival, one of our most hated rivals.”
The Rebels’ chances of advancing to the conference final will be enhanced if they can contain Emerson and Vey and get some heat on netminder Tyler Bunz, who was lights-out versus Red Deer during the season.
“It’s important that we shut those guys down and it’s going to be important that we get into the tough areas of the rink and bear down on our opportunities,” said Wallin. “We’ll have to get in there for those second and third chances.”
Games 3 and 4 will be played next Tuesday and Wednesday at Medicine Hat. Fifth to seventh games, if needed, are scheduled for April 16 at the Centrium, April 18 in Medicine Hat and April 20 at the Centrium.
• Wallin expects forward Adam Kambeitz (injury/illness) and defenceman Aaron Borejko (eye infection) to be available for Friday’s series-opener. Both players sat out the final game of the Edmonton series.