Rebels swept away by Blades

They battled hard right to the bitter end.

Red Deer Rebel Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Saskatoon Blade Levi Bews get tangled up during the Blades’ 5-2 win Thursday

Red Deer Rebel Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Saskatoon Blade Levi Bews get tangled up during the Blades’ 5-2 win Thursday

Blades 5 Rebels 2

They battled hard right to the bitter end.

Too bad the bitter end came so soon.

The Red Deer Rebels were all saliva and vinegar Thursday at the Centrium, but were simply over-matched against an older and larger Saskatoon Blades squad that completed a four-game sweep of the WHL Eastern Conference quarter-final with a 5-2 triumph before 3,800 fans.

“It was a tough one. I thought our compete level was there, we worked pretty hard,” said a dejected Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin.

But that wasn’t enough against a rock-solid defensive team with hefty forwards and an equally large back end. The Rebels couldn’t convert their energy into much-needed goals and the visitors eventually pulled away with three third-period tallies.

The Rebels dominated the last five minutes of the first period, but their puck luck was lacking big-time.

Adam Kambeitz finally broke the ice on a short-handed breakaway 1:47 into the second frame to give Red Deer its first lead of the series. But defenceman Stefan Elliott potted a power-play marker just over six minutes later, Jeremy Boyer converted a rebound off a Red Deer skate at 13:11 and the visitors never looked back.

“We didn’t capitalize on our power play early in the game, then after we got the lead on the short-handed goal we made a few mistakes,” said Wallin. “We created some opportunites but didn’t get any bounces early in the game when we were getting traffic in front and pucks through to the net. We had shots that were tipped and bounced wide.”

As the Rebels went all out in an effort to create scoring chances in the third period, the Blades took advantage of defensive errors and extended their lead with goals from Curtis Hamilton and Marek Viedensky in the first half of the frame.

“That kind of took the wind out of our sails a bit,” said Wallin. “But we played hard right to the final minute. The guys worked hard, we just made a couple too many mistakes that ended up in the back of our net.”

Brett Ferguson tipped Cullen Morin’s power-play point shot past Blades netminder Steven Stanford at 16:22, giving the Rebels one last gasp. And the Centrium fans were still hopeful when Gaelan Patterson was penalized just 12 seconds later, but the Saskatoon forward stepped out of the box and notched an empty-net goal with 1:18 remaining.

Blades assistant coach David Struch, running the bench in the absence of suspended head man Lorne Molleken, credited the Rebels for their part in a hard-fought, albeit brief, series.

“It was exactly what we expected. We knew from the games we played against Red Deer earlier in the year that they’re a hard-working team and they’re going to be a good, young team in the future,” he said. “We knew coming into this building (with a 2-0 series lead) that they weren’t just going to lay down for us. We had to come in and play hard and fortunately we came out with a couple of big victories.”

The Rebels gradually adjusted to the Blades’ physical style to the point where they were the more aggressive team in Game 4.

“They came out banging and tried to play us the way we play teams. They were really hard to play against,” said Struch. “But our experience really showed in the second and third periods. We talked about that fourth game being the toughest one to win and it was really tough for us tonight. Fortunately our older guys stepped up in the second half of the game and came through for us.”

With the end coming so suddenly, Wallin had to gather himself before discussing the season as a whole.

“To be honest, right now I’m devastated. I thought we had a chance to move beyond this series, I really did, and it’s certainly a smack in the face to be out in four straight,” he said. “But I’m proud of the steps this group has taken. We were in a situation in the middle of the season where our backs were against the wall, we were under .500 going into December.

“We had some key injuries and guys really needed to step up and I thought the character of our group really showed through when we made a big push. These guys overcame their earlier mentality and got to the point where they expected to win every night. I’m proud of how far this group came and I’m excited about where it can go, but right now it hurts.”

Rebels captain Colin Archer echoed Wallin’s sentiments.

“We came a long way this season, there’s a lot of guys in there (dressing room) who took a lot of steps,” said Archer. “We’re proud of each other. We went from a team that had a poor attitude towards winning to a team that expected to win every night. I think there’s plenty to be happy about.”

Still, the general feeling in the Rebels’ locker room was that the season wasn’t supposed to end so early.

“We expected to make some noise in the playoffs,” said Archer. “We didn’t expect this to happen. Saskatoon played very well, but given some bounces this could have been an entirely different series.

“It’s not the way we wanted it to end, but we’re proud of the way we battled and we’re really proud of the way the city got behind us.”

Kraymer Barnstable, who was spectacular the night before in a 2-1 overtime loss, stopped 34 shots while starting his second straight game in place of Darcy Kuemper. That was hardly surprising, but more than a few eyebrows were raised when front-line forwards Landon Ferraro and Andrej Kudrna were scratched from the Red Deer lineup.

Wallin, who stressed the need for more production from his go-to players following Game 3, didn’t make it clear if their exclusion was due to injury or was simply a coaching decision.

“This was a big game, a game we needed to win to survive to play the next day, and those two guys weren’t at 100 per cent physically,” he said. “We just felt that to give ourselves the best chance we needed 20 guys on the ice who were 100 per cent, who were ready to compete at that level. We had healthy bodies available and although it was a difficult decision, we decided that was the right way to go.”

gmeachem@bprda.wpengine.com