Tigers put Rebels on brink

Tigers 3 Rebels 1 MEDICINE HAT — Going, going . . . not quite gone.

Medicine Hat Tigers goalie Tyler Bunz blocks a shot by John Persson of the Red Deer Rebels during Tuesday's game at the Arena.

Medicine Hat Tigers goalie Tyler Bunz blocks a shot by John Persson of the Red Deer Rebels during Tuesday's game at the Arena.

Tigers 3 Rebels 1

MEDICINE HAT — Going, going . . . not quite gone.

The Red Deer Rebels haven’t fallen off the Western Hockey League playoff cliff just yet, but they’re on the precipice.

The Medicine Hat Tigers placed the Rebels on the edge of post-season elimination with a 3-1 win Tuesday before 4,006 fans at the Arena.

The Tigers lead the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal 3-0 and can oust their Alberta rivals in Game 4 tonight.

The Rebels, who were outscored 14-1 in the first two games of the series on home ice, were in this one until late, until Cole Grbavac potted an insurance goal — his fourth of the series and eighth of the post-season — from a scramble with under four minutes remaining.

The goal followed a clear giveaway by Rebels rookie defenceman Mathew Dumba. Scott McKay was the recipient of the turnover and broke in with Grbavac, who ended up whacking at a bouncing puck and watching it beat netminder Darcy Kuemper on the short side.

“I was driving to the net and just shot the puck. It was bouncing around and I hacked it in. That’s the way a lot of playoff goals are scored,” said Grbavac, who had plumber-like numbers (13g,15a) during the regular season but has looked more like an electrician with the way he’s lit up the Rebels.

“That was an important goal for us at that point. Red Deer was coming hard, they were pressing and spending some time in our zone,” said Tigers head coach Shaun Clouston. “That was a big goal.”

Following a scoreless opening period, the Tigers caught a break late in the second frame when the puck bounced off the end boards and into the slot, where Kellan Tochkin ripped a quick shot past Kuemper high to his blocker side.

The lead stood up until defenceman Justin Weller beat Medicine Hat stopper Tyler Bunz — who was named the game’s first star for his 26-save effort — from the top of the faceoff circle 3:13 into the final frame.

The hosts responded three minutes later on a three-on-two that finished with Hunter Shinkaruk picking the low short side on Kuemper from 20 feet out.

“They’re an opportunistic team. This was a hard-fought battle and we had a ton of chances and it didn’t feel like we were ever going to get anything by Bunz,” said Rebels head coach/VP of hockey operations Jesse Wallin.

“But we just stuck with it and finally broke the seal with a tying goal. Then we made a couple of mistakes.

“On their second goal our third forward took a bad angle and gave up a three-on-two, and when you give up a three-on-two to these guys they end up capitalizing.

“On their third goal it was a blind pass up the middle of the ice. It was a turnover that took us out of the game.”

The Rebels refused to fold and created big pressure in the final two minutes with Kuemper on the bench.

“We fought right to the buzzer and had a couple of opportunities with the goalie out, but Bunz stood on his head again,” said Wallin.

The Tigers goaltender came up large on several occasions and made a pair of big-time saves on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the third period. He got his blocker on a labeled shot and then made a pad stop on a deflection.

Kuemper was also sharp while turning aside 26 shots, but he again played second fiddle to Bunz.

Tuesday’s contest was in sharp contrast to the first two outings.

“I thought it was a great game, a real battle,” said Clouston. “Both teams competed real hard. It was physical and both goaltenders played real well.”

“For sure, this was a tight game, a true playoff game,” said Grbavac, who felt that Games 1 and 2 were more intense than the scores of 9-1 and 5-0 indicated.

“The scores in the first two games weren’t really fair to them (Rebels), they were hard-fought games as well,” he added. “They battled every shift and we came away with some aches and pains. It’s been a battle every shift the entire series.”

While the Tigers are now in control and it would seem that the series is theirs to lose, Grbavac suggested that a fourth win won’t come easy.

On the contrary . . .

“We still haven’t finished it. We know that Red Deer is not going to give up,” he said. “They’ll throw everything they have at us tomorrow.”

The Rebels, of course, have no room for error if they want to take the series back to Red Deer for a fifth game Saturday.

“We’re in a tough spot,” said Wallin. “All we can do is focus on tomorrow night and try and chip away one shift at a time.

“I thought we had opportunities to be up in the first two periods tonight, but it didn’t go that way for us. Bunz has played real well and we just have to stay with it and try to break him.”

Rebels defenceman Alex Petrovic, who got the upper hand in a scrap with rearguard Thomas Carr at the final buzzer, remains confident.

“We came into this barn and thought we could steal two games from them, but now we’ll have to take it to Game 7,” he said.

“We didn’t do well defensively in the first two games, but tonight we worked our butts off. We came up short but we’re just going to have to battle back from this.

“We’ve been on lots of winning streaks this season and now we have to put four together.”

Notes: Both teams were zero-for-four on the power play . . . The Rebels scratched defencemen Lucas Grayson, Matthew Pufahl and Kayle Doetzel, and forwards Marc McCoy and Chad Robinson . . . The Tigers are still without injured forward Tyler Pitlick. Medicine Hat scratches were Spencer Jensen and Patrik Parkkonen.

gmeachem@bprda.wpengine.com