Less than four minutes into overtime in a 1-1 hockey game, the Rebels big second line got to work.
Mostly used to check the top line, the physical play of Evan Polei, Conner Bleackley and Adam Musil has scored a big goal or two in the tournament and in the Western Hockey League Playoffs.
Bleackley picked Brandon Wheat Kings centre Duncan Campbell’s pocket as he tried to clear the zone and skated to the left wing side of the net. Polei skated to the opposite side of the net and waited for the pass.
“To be honest I thought he was going to shoot it,” said Polei. “If I saw Conner wide open like that I probably would have passed it to Conner. It was a great pass.”
Polei, sitting on the backdoor, called for the puck and Bleackey sent him the pass through the Wheat Kings defenders setting up the one-timer. He made no mistake and sent the puck over a sprawling Jordan Papirny, Wheat Kings goaltender, and into the back of the net.
It’s Polei’s first ever overtime goal and he called it the biggest goal of his career. The goal gave the Rebels (2-1) a 2-1 overtime win, eliminating the Brandon Wheat Kings (0-3) from the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
Three weeks before, the Wheat Kings had eliminated the Rebels in five games in the WHL Eastern Conference Final.
“You can’t even describe it,” said Polei about the feeling of redemption.
“We lost five games to those guys and for them to come into this tournament and lose all three and send them home, this is an absolutely great feeling.”
Polei had two game winning goals for the Rebels in the WHL playoffs and assisted two other game winning goals.
“No one has short memories,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “We know we were beat in the semis by Brandon and rightly so, they have a very good hockey team.
“Our team is different than what it was four weeks ago. Having everybody healthy and everybody back in the lineup for the first time since Game 2 of the regular season that we’ve had our actual lineup.”
Brandon looked like world beaters through four rounds of the Western Hockey League playoffs. Winning three series in five games. It took them five to eliminate the Rebels and five to eliminate the Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL final.
“Somewhere between Seattle and Red Deer we lost our mojo,” said Wheat Kings head coach Kelly McCrimmon. “We never got going anywhere near the level we had in the playoffs. In the four series we played I always had a feeling as a coach that we were not going to be denied. We didn’t bring that here.”
For more than 20 minutes, Tim McGauley’s wrist shot goal in the second period looked to be the game’s only goal, then with 5:05 to play in the game the Rebels got the tying goal. After several minutes of pressure, the second line got to work again. Defenceman Haydn Fleury fired a point shot that Papirny rebounded in front of the net. Musil locked in a battle with Mitchell Wheaton got his stick free and chipped home the equalizer.
On a night when Papirny stopped just about everything the Rebels threw at him, everything but the two goals. He was a rock in net for the Wheat Kings.
One game removed from surrendering seven goals to the London Knights, he made several key saves including breakaways for de Wit and Pawlenchuk in the first and a hard wrist shot from Bleackley in the slot in the second.
“Right from warmups I felt really good,” said Papirny, who stopped 30 of 32 shots. “I saw the puck really well the whole game and the guys did an awesome job of limiting their chances and keeping them outside.
“At the end of the day it comes down to one shot. It’s tough pill to swallow.”
On the other end of the ice, Toth matched Papirny with many good saves.
“Losing out to them was tough and we knew after the third we were in the semis, but I think it was a little cherry on top to knock them out,” said Toth.
Jayce Hawryluk, who had 30 points (7 goals, 23 assists) in 21 playoff games, was scratched from the game. He led the Wheat Kings in regular season scoring with 47 goals and 59 assists in 58 games. McCrimmon did not elaborate on why Hawryluk was out of the lineup.
During the Memorial Cup Hawryluk was held pointless in the first two games he played.
The Rebels and Rouyn-Noranda Huskies will square off again on Friday evening at 6 p.m. at the Centrium. The winner of that game will play the London Knights in the Memorial Cup final on Sunday at 2:30 p.m.