Friday night was a game the Red Deer Rebels needed to win.
And win they did, thumping the Calgary Hitmen for the fourth time this season, 5-1 down at the Enmax Centrium.
Coming into the game, the Rebels had lost three of their previous four and two in a row, and the coaching staff put them through a couple of grueling practices to try and get them back to the team that had yet to post three consecutive regulation losses this season.
“I think the compete level was better,” said Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin who was not happy with his club’s effort in a 4-2 loss to Medicine Hat last Tuesday, saying too many of his ‘go to’ guys were missing in action.
“We addressed that and had a few discussions about it and practice was designed to raise that level a little bit and I thought we responded that way. The guys came out and played hard. The intensity was better, the emotion level was better, the compete level was better, and that’s what you need this time of year.”
Rebels’ netminder Darcy Kuemper picked up his 40th win of the season, tying the franchise record for most wins in a single season set by Cam Ward in 2002-2003.
Offensively, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins led the charge for Red Deer against Calgary, scoring three goals to increase his season total to 23, while Andrej Kudrna chipped in with four assists.
“Ryan’s a talented guy and everyone knows that,” said Wallin after Friday’s win.
“He’s a guy that’s also pretty special on the powerplay and five on three, he’s got a bit more space, and he made that one count. The first goal is always a big goal and Andrej made a heck of a pass on that play. The puck turned over at our blue line and he turned and found Hoppy in the neutral zone and that was two skilled guys connecting, and that’s what we need from those guys.”
Wallin was also pleased with Kudrna’s game, which had disappeared a little bit over the last little while.
“He’s a guy that the last few games I think his compete level has been down and he did some work on that at practice,” said Wallin.
“He watched some video and I think he saw the result of that. That’s what we need from him as well. It doesn’t matter who you are. At this time of year, you have to compete and get your nose dirty and he got rewarded for competing at the level he needed to.”
The Rebels’ special teams, which had been sitting at or near the top of the WHL standings for most of the season, also picked things up after struggling over the latter half of February, with the power play scoring a goal and the penalty kill taking care of every man-advantage opportunity the Hitmen got.
“Our penalty kill was a little bit passive at times,” Wallin replied when asked about the special teams starting to come back around.
“We got standing around and gave up a couple of opportunities early on but ultimately, at the end of the night, we shut them down. The five on three kill was big in the second period. We did a good job competing and getting pucks down the ice.
“I thought as the game went on, we got better. Our power play generated a few opportunities. It had been a bit stale lately but I thought we were moving the puck better and it’s a game to build of off for sure.”
The Rebels head back to Alberta today (Wednesday) after playing last night in Prince George (results not available by press time), and they’ll stay on the road for a Friday night contest in Medicine Hat against a Tigers team that trails them by just three points for first place in the Central Division.
Red Deer is back at home Saturday to host Swift Current.