It’s crunch time for the Red Deer Rebels.
With the Christmas break in the rearview mirror, the Rebels are hitting the ground running in an effort to clinch a WHL playoff birth.
“We obviously need to continue to be better. We’ve got to have more consistency in our game. We’ve got to be a higher competitive team night-in, night-out,” said Head Coach Brent Sutter about the second half of the season.
At press time, the Rebels were tied with the Calgary Hitmen for the second of three playoff births in the highly competitive East Central Division with 46 points. The Rebels have two games in hand over the Hitmen.
The Lethbridge Hurricanes, meanwhile, are holding on to the division lead with 48 points.
“We can’t be satisfied with where we’re at in the standings. We’re two points out of first and that’s our goal, to finish first in our division,” Sutter said, adding the first step for the team is going to have to be improving their defensive play.
“I’d like us to get better defensively. I’d like to see us be a better puck moving team and a better transition team.”
The Rebels are among the most prolific scoring teams in the WHL, sitting fourth in the league in goals for with 127 and, though their defense might be inconsistent, they still post solid numbers on the other side of the puck.
As a team, they’ve allowed the ninth fewest number of goals in the league with 104 and, perhaps more telling, the seventh-fewest number of shots at 1,031 in 35 games.
When it comes to special teams, the Rebels have had a bit of a mixed bag.
On one hand, their power play is sixth in the league.
On the other, “Our penalty kill has to get better,” Sutter said.
The Rebels’ penalty kill is the second worst in the league with only a 75.4% success rate. The only PK percentage that’s lower is that of the Kootenay Ice, who are dead last in the league with 14 points and who have lost 12 straight games since Nov. 25th.
“We do generate enough offense. At times we’re not as good at defending as we need to be if we’re going to have success,” Sutter said.
But where defense fails, the goaltenders have to step in. And the Rebels’ backstoppers, though not spectacular, have been solid.
Starter Rylan Toth has a 2.88 goals against average, 10th amongst starters that have played a certain number of games, and .904 save percentage. He’s also contributed two shutouts.
Meanwhile, backup Trevor Martin has been a decent stand in. While his .894 save percentage isn’t great, he has still managed to post a 5-2 record in the 14 games he’s played. He’s also earned a decent 2.94 GAA.
The Rebs slid a little bit during the month of December, falling out of first place in their division, Sutter said he’s not too worried.
“It’s not like we’ve fallen a long way in the standings. We’re two points out of first in our division. When we were five or six points up on one team, they had games in hand on us,” he said, adding the team knows they’re going to have to improve on their performance.
“Our month of December wasn’t great. We were .500, a .500 hockey team and that’s not going to be good enough, obviously, and we know that. At the end of the day we just have to get better. We have to improve in every area.”
The Rebs, along with every other team in the WHL, hit the ground running after the Christmas break with a game on Dec. 27th.
After that, the Rebels have just 37 games before the start of the WHL playoffs. The ultimate goal would be to win the 2015-16 Ed Chynoweth Cup and earn their place in the Mastercard Memorial Cup Tournament.
According to Sutter, every single one of those games is important.
“They’re all key to us. There’s no such thing as games being any bigger than others,” he said.
“Everytime you play a game, especially in the second half of the season, it becomes the biggest game of the year to date.”
Next up for Red Deer is a Thursday afternoon game in Kootenay on Dec. 31st for their final game of 2015. Puck drop for that game is at 4 p.m.