Red Deer Rebels head coach Steve Konowalchuk knows his team is in tough against an opponent built to win a championship.
“They are traded a ton of their future away to win the league,” he said on Wednesday. “They’re a favourite, no matter who they play.
“So, we’re going to go out and have fun and work hard and take care of our game and do the best we can,” said Konowalchuk, the day before his team will travel to Edmonton to take on the Oil Kings in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Oil Kings swept the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the first round and were the first Eastern Conference team to get to the second round of the Western Hockey League playoffs with their 6-4 win on April 28.
“They ranked top three all year long and then (at the trade) deadline they traded a bunch of futures in mind to get more players,” said Konowalchuk. “They definitely have one goal in mind. For them, I think anything less than a championship would be disappointing.
“It doesn’t mean our guys aren’t going to go out and compete.”
The Rebels come into this series with valuable experience playing a Brandon Wheat Kings team that made the Rebels fight for every goal. It took a third overtime and a game-winner by team captain Jayden Grubbe to knock off Wheat Kings team in six games.
“I think there was some good experience in that series. Not a lot of junior hockey players have playoff experience right now. So, hopefully, we can draw a little bit from that.”
Rebels fans can expect to see the team come out with the same energy and tenacious forechecking they demonstrated in the first round, said the coach.
“I expect (them) to go out and play hard. They do every time. I was proud of how they played last series and we want to bring the same effort and I think the guys will do that.”
Rebels veteran forward Liam Keeler is expecting a battle.
“I think it’s going to be a great series. It’s two really good teams going at it.
“Obviously, Edmonton has a lot of pressure on them being a top team. We kind of have that underdog mentality, that we’re coming to play our best game and show them what we can do and we’re really excited for the opportunity,” said Keeler, who had a goal and assist in the first round.
The former Oil King, acquired via trade in May 2021 that saw Jaxsen Wiebe head to Edmonton, may be able to use some of that inside knowledge.
“Obviously, I played with a lot of those guys. I know them really well. They’re really good friends of mine,” he said.
“Maybe I know a few things about them I can give to our staff, but it’s going to come down to going out there and playing.”
Keeler believes the Rebels picked up valuable experience in the first round.
“Brandon was a really strong team. They played us really hard and we had to earn every single win that we got.
“There was not one game where we didn’t see their best and that was a big learning curve for us. We liked the way we played in some games and in some games maybe we could have played a little bit better,” he said.
“I think that experience is going to be really vital going into this series. I think we played every style of game. We’ve been down, we’ve been up, we’ve been in triple overtime too.”
Forward Ben King, who had four goals and four assists against Brandon including a hat trick and an assist in Game 6, said the team will not be changing its approach against Edmonton.
“We want to play our game just the way we did all year. We matched up well against them so we’ve just got to bring our game up to Edmonton and compete and play their top guys hard. I think it will be good.”
The Rebels and Oil Kings split their 10-game season series 5-5, with five of those games decided by a single goal.
King also believes the Brandon series will prove valuable going forward.
“I think that was one of the hardest fought battles in the whole league in that first round. It might help us going into Edmonton.
“It’s going to be another hard-fought series. They’ve got a lot of good players. We’ve just go to play our game and play hard and carry on.”
Game 1 of the series is Thursday in Edmonton, with Game 2 Saturday in Edmonton. Game 3 will be in Red Deer at the Peavey Mart Centrium on Monday, with Game 4 set for Wednesday in Red Deer.