KEEP ON ROLLING - From left

Rebels off to a rocky start against heavyweight Wheat Kings

* Editor’s note – the Red Deer Rebels won Tuesday night’s home game against the Brandon Wheat Kings 6-2 *

No one ever said winning an Eastern Conference Championship in the Western Hockey League was going to be easy.

The Red Deer Rebels faced possibly their toughest challenge of the post season this past weekend when they met up with the Brandon Wheat Kings for the first two games of the WHL Eastern Conference Championship series at the Westman Place in Brandon, dropping Friday night’s contest 4-3 in overtime before falling 6-4 on Saturday night, despite briefly holding leads in both games.

“When you’re up a goal in the third period halfway through you’ve got to be able to lock it down and tighten it up and obviously work for defending and not give up two goals for them to get winners,” said Rebels’ Associate Coach Jeff Truitt after the team returned home to Red Deer on Monday.

After defeating the Regina Pats in dramatic fashion, 2-1 in Game 7 last week, the Rebels knew what they would be up against when it came to squaring off with the defending Eastern Conference champions.

“We still have to play to our strengths. They’ve got a lot of skill and a lot of speed but we’ve got to still play the way that we need to play,” said Truitt of the Wheat Kings’ offensive powerhouse, which consists of four of the top five playoff point scorers in the league.

“They obviously have a lot of guys that had some pretty high points this year and throughout the playoffs they’ve been playing pretty strong, so we knew going into that that they’re a strong team, so we knew that we’ve got to shut them down.”

The Rebels were ready for the Wheat Kings, though. After all, the two teams met four times during the regular season this year, with each side claiming a pair of victories. That included one game in particular when the Rebels marched to a 10-0 romp of the Wheat Kings at the Centrium back in January, so they knew they could beat Brandon.

And after surviving an onslaught by the Wheat Kings in the first 10 minutes of game one, the Rebels appeared to match Brandon’s powerhouse blow for blow to create two of the most exciting and memorable games of the WHL season to date.

Both games followed much the same script, with few variations.

Neither team was able to get a real foothold in the scoring department in either game until the third period. Then all hell broke loose.

In total, 10 goals have been scored in the third period so far this series, including one particularly nasty stretch of time in game two which saw four goals scored in just four minutes which included two lead changes for a very fast and furious game speed.

In fact, the two teams have combined for a total of 17 goals in two games, with Brandon outscoring the Rebels 10-7, so it was a very tight series as the Rebels prepared to host Brandon in Game 3 at the Centrium on Tuesday night. That game was not over at press time.

“We’ve scored in the series, which is great, and we know that we can do that. Now it’s just a matter of balancing things off here and improving on our defensive play. We’re not deflated either way here. We’re back at home, and that’s important,” said Truitt, adding that small defensive errors have been part of the reason that the Rebels weren’t able to pull out the victory in either game.

“We can’t give up two goals for them to get winners. Coming out of these two games, a little bit of the same scenario when we’re up and we end up losing both games. We’ve got to make sure that we defend it the right way.”

Home ice advantage has been kind so far to the Rebels, who won all of their games at the Centrium last series and haven’t lost in their home barn since game two of the first round.

“We proved it in the last series (against Regina) especially game 7 in our building how energizing this building can be. It really kind of helps you push through and that’s what we’re expecting coming home here for our next two games,” Truitt said.

Game 4 goes on Wednesday night at the Centrium. Puck drop on that one is at 7 p.m.

zcormier@reddeerexpress.com