For the Red Deer Rebels, the 2017-2018 season was a tale of two polar opposites.
There was the first half of the year that most would like to forget, with just two wins between in November and December.
Then there was the second half of the season when the Rebels rattled off a 17-7-2 record in the final two months of the year to sneak into the playoffs.
Red Deer was ousted by the Lethbridge Hurricanes in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final Saturday.
Players gathered for exit interviews with the coaching staff Monday.
Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter pinpointed two dates that stood out when he met with the media to assess the season.
The first was Jan. 23, when the remarkable turnaround began which led the Rebels into the playoffs.
“If I told someone in January we were 13 points out and we’re going to get into that third spot in our division and we’re going to be in playoffs, you guys would have thought I was out of my mind,” said Sutter.
“Yet, I kept telling the kids, if you put three or four games in a row together and win some in a row and get on a roll, the other team starts losing two or three and now instead of being 13 points out it’s six or seven. You pick away at it. Next thing you know it’s two or you’re tied. Then you’ll move ahead if you stay doing things right.”
The second date was game 71 on March 16 at home against the Kootenay Ice, where Red Deer lost 6-2. The Rebels missed a chance for second place in the Central Division and home ice in the first round of the WHL Playoffs.
“We didn’t play well at home. We had some guys not play at the level we needed them to play. I’m talking about our top players,” Sutter said.
“And we lost that game and our team didn’t really recover from that point on. That’s how fragile and that’s how your season can sway from one point to the other.”
The Rebels did not recover opening the playoffs with 6-0 and 8-3 losses to the Hurricanes.
The overtime loss in Game 3 at home dashed the Rebels playoff hopes in round one. The Rebels allowed 19 goals in the first three games of the series.
“When you reflect back on the series, and you give up six, eight, five goals against in the first three games, you normally aren’t going to win many playoff series doing that. Beginning of Game 4, we gave up two goals and win. Then Game 5, you score four that’s gotta win you the game,” Sutter said.
“We weren’t a good team for the first half of the year the way we defended. We averaged our goals against up to January 23 and it was 3.8 goals against. From January 23 up to the final weekend before we played Kootenay, it was 2.8. That’s a one-goal difference, it allowed us to win a lot more games.”
Sutter said beyond the playoff disappointment, the overwhelming positive from the season is the experience their young players received playing important roles. That included rookie netminder Ethan Anders, as well as forwards like Alex Morozoff, Arshdeep Bains, River Fahey, Justin Svenson and Zak Smith.
“I liked our team speed the last half of the year. I thought we became a much quicker team,” Sutter said.
“We’re a younger team and we’re going to be a younger team again next year, but these young guys had bigger roles this year. They have to continue to improve and get better within those roles. We’ll see who pushes who and who can handle it when we get into the regular season next year.”