The underdog is on top.
Twenty-two points separated Red Deer and the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the regular season yet the Rebels are one win away from a series victory in the 2017 WHL first round playoff series.
Back-to-back home wins have the Rebels with a 3-1 stranglehold in the series, a 5-3 victory Thursday night showed some incredible resiliency from the home side.
Remarkably, the Rebels have yet to lead heading into the third period but have stolen three victories.
“We have to stay with it. Obviously you don’t like being in those positions. I’d rather us not be in that position. But you are and you just have to find a way,” Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter said.
“The character inside the room has to come out. Your leadership has to be good. I thought our guys, through this series for the most part have been very focused in doing what we have to do to give ourselves a chance. We’re obviously playing a very good hockey team. That being said, we like to think when we do things the right way we’re a good team too.”
Rebels forward Lane Zablocki has been a man possessed since joining Red Deer and so far in these playoffs with another two goals Thursday.
The 18-year-old draft eligible forward had 19 goals in 31 games in the regular season for Red Deer and now leads the WHL with five goals in the post-season.
“Feel really good, confidence is high. As a team we all believe and that’s what you need this time of the year. I think that’s the biggest part,” He said.
Veteran forward Evan Polei also continued his big-game moniker, scoring the game-winning goal with just 1:59 remaining in the game. The 21-year-old centre picked up a loose puck and with a wrap-around beat Hurricanes goalie Stuart Skinner to the far post.
It was a far from perfect performance for Red Deer, as penalty trouble continued to plague the Rebels. The Hurricanes were able to capitalize twice on eight power plays in the loss, but still the Rebels were able to persevere.
“We took a penalty that you didn’t want to take (in the second), puts you down four minutes again and they score on the power play on that. You get into the third again and we talked about it after the second, just stay with our game and stay strong mentally,” Sutter said.
“Making sure we just do the right things and don’t worry about where the score is at. Make sure we are playing the right way and you get a power play and you capitalize on it. There’s another really good playoff game.”
Michael Spacek has been a key part of the Red Deer penalty kill in the series, but he also played a vital role offensively with four assists and earned third star honours Thursday.
Skinner was second star after making 38 saves and withstanding a ton of pressure from the Rebels.
Hagel added an empty net goal for Red Deer late, but his short-handed goal to tie the game at two 5:14 into second.
Hurricanes forward Tyler Wong opened the scoring early in the first and Jordy Bellerive made it 2-0, before Zablocki brought the Rebels within a goal when he poked in a rebound.
After Hagel tied the game, the Rebels turned up the physical play in the second period and started to pressure the Hurricanes relentlessly. Sutter said that’s the way his team needs to play to be successful.
“I think that’s when we play our best,” Sutter said.
“We’re a team that’s got enough skill on it but we have to play a heavy game and be a team that finishes checks and a team that’s committed to playing a real good team game… we take a lot of pride in it and we harped on it all year. This is the time of year we have to put it to use.”
Game five of the series goes Saturday night in Lethbridge.