Special teams played centre stage during a gruelling three game weekend for the Red Deer Rebels, who kicked off their WHL post-season with a pair of wins and a loss against the Calgary Hitmen over the Easter weekend.
The Rebs came away from the trio of back-to-back matchups with a 2-1 lead in the best of seven first round matchup, which has proven to be a physical affair.
“It’s going to be a tight series. We all knew that and expected that. It’s tough playing three (games) in three (nights),” said Rebels Head Coach/GM Brent Sutter after his team pulled off a dramatic 4-3 victory at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Sunday night.
Red Deer’s playoffs got off to a good start at the Centrium, last Friday night, when they squeaked out a 3-1 victory over the Hitmen thanks, in part, to a late third period game winner by Adam Helewka, who drove through the Calgary defenders and slipped the puck five-hole on Hitmen backstopper Cody Porter to give his crew a 2-1 lead with just 5:49 remaining on the clock in a 1-1 hockey game.
“(Rebels captain) Luke Philp made a great effort to win a battle there and I came and picked it up and I just got inside body position (on Hitmen defenseman Jake Bean) and snuck it five-hole,” said Helewka, who also scored on the empty net four minutes later to cement the victory and earn himself first star honors in the process.
The win came on the backs of the home team’s penalty killing unit, which was a perfect 6/6 on the evening.
Red Deer’s penalty troubles got the better of them in the second game, though, as Calgary’s special teams racked up a pair of power play goals and killed off a couple of key penalties on their way to a 5-2 victory.
Red Deer failed to capitalize on a full two-minute five on three opportunity and a full five-minute major penalty incurred by Hitmen captain Colby Harmsworth after a hit that sent Rebels leading scorer Ivan Nikolishin careening awkwardly into the boards.
The Rebels’ speedy winger left the game favouring his left leg and did not return. His long-term status was not available at press time, though he did not make an appearance in Game 3.
Despite a late game push by the Rebels, an empty netter by Pavel Karnaukhov sealed the deal in the last minute to tie the series back up at 1-1 heading back to Calgary.
The third and final game of the triple header was by far the closest of the series on the score board.
It wasn’t looking so good for Red Deer early on, though. Less than three minutes into the game, the Rebels found themselves killing off a five on three penalty after Adam Musil ended up in the box for a minor and Helewka joined him with a four minute high sticking penalty.
Less than a minute later the puck was in the Rebels’ net and Jordy Stallard was celebrating his second goal of the series.
The PK didn’t panic, though, and shut the Hitmen down for the rest of the shorthanded situation.
“Our penalty killing, you know they got that five on three, but they actually did a pretty good job. I thought our PK was a lot better tonight than it was last night,” Sutter said, adding his team had all aspects of their game working well.
“At the end of the day you need to have all elements of your game going. We got a big effort here today.”
Calgary scored another quick goal late in the first to go up 2-0, but that just wasn’t going to fly for the Rebels. Right off the ensuing centre ice face off, veteran tough-guy Evan Polei responded for the visiting team with his second goal of the post-season, tapping in a Nelson Nogier rebound to cut the Hitmen’s lead in half heading into the second.
The next period and a half was all Rebels. Brandon Hagel set up Jake DeBrusk for a beautiful goal early in the second to tie it. The Boston Bruins draft pick would follow that up by sniping his second of the evening just 1:42 into the third to give his team the lead.
“We didn’t quit and we played our game and got some bounces. Personally it was nice to see the puck go in the net and it was even nicer to see a win, that’s for sure,” DeBrusk said after the game, adding the team really showed their strength after Calgary tied it up late in the third as Jakob Stukel wired a gorgeous shot through Martin’s five-hole with just six minutes to play. For a couple of minutes, it looked like the game might head to overtime.
But Polei and DeBrusk, who played Midget hockey together in Edmonton, had other ideas.
With just two minutes remaining on the clock, DeBrusk won a battle for the puck in the Calgary corner and centred it for a streaking Polei, wired a one-timer from the top of the face off circle and put it bar down over Porter’s shoulder. Final score: 4-3 Rebels.
The Rebels play again this Friday when they clash with the Hitmen at the Stampede Corral in Calgary. Puck drop is at 7 p.m. Red Deer will play host to the Hitmen for Game 5 at the Centrium on Saturday at 7 p.m.