The Red Deer Rebels and Brandon Wheat Kings will play in the WHL’s Eastern Conference quarterfinals starting Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Peavey Mart Centrium. (Photo by Rob Wallator/Red Deer Rebels)

The Red Deer Rebels and Brandon Wheat Kings will play in the WHL’s Eastern Conference quarterfinals starting Friday night at 7 p.m. at the Peavey Mart Centrium. (Photo by Rob Wallator/Red Deer Rebels)

Rebels, Wheat Kings set for WHL Playoffs

The WHL Eastern Conference best-of-seven quarterfinal goes Friday and Saturday at the Centrium

You don’t have to look too far back in the Western Hockey League history books to find out about the last time the Red Deer Rebels and Brandon Wheat Kings squared off in the WHL Playoffs.

Red Deer beefed up at the trade deadline during the 2015-16 WHL season, knowing they would automatically qualify for the Memorial Cup, as hosts.

It looked like the club had the potential to earn a spot on its own merits into the four-team national tournament, until they ran into the Wheat Kings in the Eastern Conference final.

Brandon won that series 4-1 and then knocked off the Seattle Thunderbirds in five games to hoist the Ed Chynoweth Cup (Red Deer did get revenge on home ice in the Memorial Cup, knocking off Brandon 2-1 in overtime, when Evan Polei scored a goal for the ages.)

Over the last 20 years, the Rebels hold a 3-2 advantage in playoff series over the Wheat Kings and they’ll look to add one more to the ledger when the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final gets underway Friday at the Peavey Mart Centrium.

Of course, no two series are alike and this one is special in both how the season series played out and several deep connections between the two clubs.

Red Deer was among the cream of the crop in the WHL this season, finishing third in the Eastern Conference, second in the Central Division with a 45-19-2-2 record. That had them 19 points clear of the Wheat Kings, who were 35-28-3-2, good for sixth in the conference.

“I think everybody’s excited,” said Rebels assistant coach Ryan Colville earlier this week.

“Across the league, it’s been a while since we’ve had playoff hockey, so not a ton of guys who have played in playoff games. I think everybody is excited to get into it. Brandon is going to be a tough opponent, but it doesn’t really matter who you’re going to play.

“We knew we were going to play a good team and we gotta be ready to go.”

The two teams haven’t played each other since Feb. 8, so the head-to-head stats don’t mean a ton between the two teams. Red Deer won a game in Brandon on Nov. 5 and lost the last game 3-1 between the two teams on Feb. 8. Red Deer won 7-1 at home on Oct. 23 and Brandon picked up a 4-1 victory on Jan. 14.

“We know they’re a good team. They have some high-end players and obviously this year, they’ve had some injury issues back and forth. Seems like the entire year they’ve had a different lineup against us,” Colville said.

“We haven’t really seen them at full tilt yet. Whoever we see this weekend, we’ll be ready. We know they’re going to be a hard, heavy team to play against. We’re going to bring some physicality and we know they’ll be up to the challenge.”

The Wheat Kings have been marred by injuries all season long, including one that’s hampered Ridly Greig, who was on Canada’s World Junior team at Christmas time. In total, Brandon lost more than 200 games to injury, with many of them coming to their top players.

“There were certainly stretches where it was a challenge,” said Brandon head coach Don MacGillivray.

“At the start of the season for sure, not even having an extra body for your home opener and basically the first 10 games of the season. That was a challenge but we got through that and I thought we had some really good stretches where guys stepped up and got some responsibility and did a good job.

“That’s part of becoming a good team. Now we’re hitting the playoffs and have still had some challenges down the road but we’re in the playoffs.”

Grieg, 19, has torched the Rebels this season with three goals and four assists in three games. Red Deer’s Nate Danielson of the Wheat Kings has five points in three games against the Rebels this season.

The Rebels counter with the WHL’s leading scorer in Arshdeep Bains and the league’s leading goal scorer in Ben King, who was as clutch as they come with 15 game-winning goals on the year.

Through four games against the Wheat Kings, Jhett Larson actually led the Rebels with five points in four games against the Wheaties, while Bains, King and Kai Uchacz each had four.

Rebels goalie Connor Ungar will get a chance to square off against the team that first showed faith in him in the WHL. He was dealt to the Rebels in a swap this summer, that sent Rebels defenceman Mason Ward to Brandon. The trade has worked out pretty well for both sides.

Red Deer was dynamite on the power play against Brandon this season with five goals on 19 chances. They’ll have to execute on the man-advantage, much like they have all year, if they hope to win the series.

Three years removed from a WHL playoff game and almost five since the last time Red Deer hosted one on a Friday night, the Centrium should be rocking on Friday night when these two storied franchises square off. Game 2 is set for Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Centrium. The series shifts to Brandon for games 3 and 4, before shifting back to Red Deer for Game 5 on April 29.

With files from Perry Bergson/ Brandon Sun