With the North Central Senior Hockey League regular season in the rearview mirror, playoffs have arrived.
The Red Deer Rustlers are set to take on the Devon Barons in the opening round best-of-five series. Red Deer will have home-ice advantage, hosting the playoff opener on Jan. 25, at 7:30 p.m. at the Penhold Multiplex.
“We’ve had pretty good crowds, the last home game of the year was one of our better ones and hoping we can play on that and have lots of people out to the multiplex,” said Rustlers captain Mike Dempster.
“We play well in our rink, so far this year we’re undefeated. Being in that barn and having the announcer and the fans, everybody on your side makes a difference.”
The Rustlers finished the regular season 10-6, but were undefeated on home ice with eight wins, including a 5-3 victory over the Barons on Jan. 4. Red Deer also beat Devon 7-2 on the road on Jan. 10.
“We had two good games against them. Probably our best road game of the year when we went up there. They’re a hard-working team and they’ve got some guys that have played senior for a while and know how to play the game and get lots of points,” Dempster said.
“They work hard, they hit. Probably one of the more physical teams in the league. It’s going to come down to who can work harder, we both have really talented teams, we both have good goaltending.”
Former RDC King Ty Berkholtz led the Rustlers in scoring this season with 14 goals, 16 assists for 30 points. That was second in the NCHL behind Kyle Harris, who posted 11 goals and 25 assists for the Morinville Kings, who won the regular-season title.
Berkholtz is part of a youth revolution for the Rustlers this season and something Dempster said has helped reinvigorate their club and the league as a whole.
Dempster added that with the parity in the league, it’s also elevated the importance of each and every game.
“I think it’s a really close league and it’s the old cliche you gotta show up for every game. We proved when we show up, we can compete with everybody and if we don’t show up, the league is too good to just mail one in,” he said.
“The games we lost, it was very evident of that. With the lack of triple-A teams around, everyone got a little bit better. It’s a good league all around. From 1-9, the separation of points is so close, you really have to come to play every night.”
The Lacombe Generals (7-8) will also drop the puck on the playoffs Saturday. They’ll travel to Daysland to take on the third-ranked Northstars, who finished with an 11-5 record.
The Blackfalds Wranglers, who finished seventh (6-9) will head to Fort Saskatchewan to play the Chiefs in the first game of the best-of-five series.