The puck will drop on the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament in Red Deer on Friday night and the Red Deer Rebels are itching to get going.
“It’s been good. It’s been different, obviously, when you’re not playing games the last two weeks but I thought we’ve done a really good job of making sure we’re prepared every day for our practices and making sure that we change it up so that it doesn’t become a long two weeks for the players. I thought they handled it really well,” said Rebels’ Head Coach and GM Brent Sutter of the team’s preparations on Monday afternoon.
The Rebels have not played a game since being eliminated in the Eastern Conference Final of the WHL playoffs by the Brandon Wheat Kings on April 29th.
Nevertheless, the team has been doing their best to stay in game shape for the impending tournament with a rigorous schedule that has included everything from early morning workouts to a day trip to West Edmonton Mall.
“We’ve changed different things up with them to keep them mentally focused and I thought that they’ve responded pretty well to that,” Sutter said.
Over the course of the past week, Sutter and the Rebels finally found out who their three opponents will be at the tournament as the championship series of the three Canadian Hockey League leagues played out, with Brandon emerging from the WHL, the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies coming out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the London Knights rolling through to the Ontario Hockey League title.
Each of these teams will provide their own unique set of challenges for the host team as they make their drive for Major Junior hockey’s greatest prize.
That long road will start for Red Deer on Friday night when they take on the Knights in the first game of the tournament.
The Knights come into the Memorial Cup tournament as easily the hottest team in the field. They haven’t lost a game since April 1st and swept both the top-ranked Erie Otters in the conference final and the Niagra Ice Dogs in the OHL final.
London is a team that thrives on offense. Their top line, consisting of Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuck and Christian Dvorak have been the most prolific trio of players in the entire CHL. In the playoffs alone, the three have combined for a whopping 50 goals, 69 assists and 129 points in just 18 games.
When asked how the Rebels plan to defend against a line like that, Sutter said it all comes down to playing smart.
“Making sure that our turnover ratio is down, making sure that we play the game the right way. It’s not just our defense, it’s our forwards that will have to play against them and there’s a job we have to do against them. It’s certainly a very good line. Obviously they’ve got well over 100 points in playoffs between the three of them, so they can certainly put up numbers. We have to make sure that we play the game the right way when we’re playing against them.”
Next up for the Rebels on the schedule will be the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, who were led throughout the playoffs by some good offensive performances as well as some showstopping play by goaltender Chase Marchand.
Marchand was lights out during the QMJHL playoffs, posting a 15-3 record with a 1.35 goals against average and a .946 save percentage to lead his team to their first ever President’s Cup victory.
The Huskies were also helped out on the front end by captain Francis Perron (12-21-33) and Timo Meier (11-12-23). The hunger will be there for Rouyn, who will be chasing the first Memorial Cup in club history.
Then, of course, there’s the rematch with the Brandon Wheat Kings.
The Wheat Kings are probably the deepest team that will be attending this year’s Memorial Cup tournament. After defeating the Rebels in five games in the Eastern Conference Final, the Wheat Kings became a force to be reckoned with as they downed the Western Conference champion Seattle Thunderbirds in five games on their way to the third WHL championship in team history.
“We had two or three games where we had leads in the third period against those teams and they just got the outcome. We still have that memory fresh in our minds. Props to them, they played a great series and won the whole league, good for them. But we’re waiting for that game to play against them for sure and get a second chance at it,” said Rebels’ forward Jake DeBrusk on the impending rematch.
Despite appearing at the Memorial Cup two times before, however, the Wheat Kings are still looking for their first Memorial Cup title.
Red Deer will be in tough as they look to repeat that magical Memorial Cup run from 2001. They’ll be without the services of speedy forward Connor Bleackley, who Sutter said is doubtful for the tournament after he sliced a tendon in his wrist during the final game of the regular season this year.
The Rebs are going to be leaning on veteran players such as DeBrusk, Adam Helewka and Luke Philp to provide leadership and scoring as they go up against the top teams in the country.
“We’ve got to play to our strengths but it still comes down to getting your individuals to play better too. We certainly need to have everyone up to their standards here come Friday,” Sutter said.
The 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup gets underway on Friday night when the Rebels take on the London Knights. Puck drop on that one is at 6 p.m. at the ENMAX Centrium.