Conner Bleackley’s surprise return wasn’t enough to help the Red Deer Rebels stave off the hottest team in the Canadian Hockey League.
Bleackley and the Rebels couldn’t contain the London Knights’ offensive powerhouse as they fell 6-2 in the first game of the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament at the ENMAX Centrium, Friday night.
“It’s tough. I thought we came out great and I thought we had a perfect start. Unfortunately we couldn’t get (a goal),” Bleackley said of his team’s performance after the game.
Bleackley and the Rebels started the game out strong, outshooting the OHL champions 8-2 in the first 10 minutes and landing some big checks on the Knights’ top line early.
That momentum quickly swung the other way, though, when Rebels’ defenseman Haydn Fleury took a roughing penalty, getting mixed up with Knights’ forward Matthew Tkachuck after the whistle to put the Knights on the power-play.
The power-play gave London’s top line of Mitch Marner, Tkachuck and Christian Dvorak the opening they needed to blow the game wide open.
Less than 30 seconds later, the puck was in the back of the Red Deer Rebels’ net on a one-timer by Aaron Berisha to put London up 1-0 halfway through the first period. Marner and Tkachuck picked up assists on the goal.
“We got mixed up after the whistle. He gave me a little spear there but I can’t retaliate there. That’s on me,” Fleury said of the first period penalty after the game.
The goal seemed to take the wind out of Red Deer’s sails. Within five minutes of the initial goal, Dvorak had found the net twice more for the Knights to stretch the lead to 3-0 after the first period.
“I thought the whole momentum of the game changed when we took a bad penalty. We didn’t play a game that we have to play in a tournament like this,” said Rebels’ Head Coach/GM Brent Sutter.
“We went through 30 minutes of hockey where we didn’t play well at all. They generated offense from that.”
The Marner-Tkachuck-Dvorak line proved to be just as deadly in the first game of the Memorial Cup as they were in the OHL playoffs, combining for four goals and six assists for 10 points on the evening.
“That’s probably the best line in the CHL and we didn’t do a good enough job tonight of holding them. I think when you don’t do that your chances are pretty slim,” Bleackley said of the line.
Despite the disastrous first two periods, the hosts showed some life towards the end of the game, as Captain Luke Philp scored one to break the shut out in the dying seconds of the second period. Halfway through the third period, Adam Helewka notched one on the power-play.
The Rebels also managed to hold London’s offensive juggernaut scoreless in the third period.
“We had a little talk after the second period. It’s one game in a tournament. You can’t let the negatives keep dwelling on you throughout the whole night and allow your play to get worse and worse. So we addressed that in the second and in the third we got better. But when you’re down that many goals it’s hard to come back against top teams,” Sutter said, adding the team will now have to use this as a learning experience for future games.
“There’s not a better learning tool than what we had here tonight. You have to learn from it, you have to learn from it quickly and you have to get right back at it.”
The Rebels are back in action against the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies on Sunday night.
Tomorrow night’s game will feature the Huskies facing off against the WHL champion Brandon Wheat Kings. Puck drop is at 5 p.m.