36 down…36 to go.
When the Red Deer Rebels rallied to beat the Kootenay Ice 6-4 a couple of Saturdays ago at the Enmax Centrium in their last game before the Christmas break, it marked the halfway point on the local WHL club’s season.
With the first half of the season in the books, the Rebels head into the second half looking to improve on their 22-10-1-3 record and second place standing in the Central Division.
“Really, I’d just like to see our group continue to move forward,” said Rebels head coach and vice-president of hockey operations Jesse Wallin when asked what he’d like to see out of his club in the second half.
“It’s a daily process of continuing to get better, continuing to get mentally stronger and continuing to own the fundamentals of our game as a group.”
Leading the way for the Rebels offensively this season is the reigning WHL rookie of the year, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has put up 10 goals and 35 assists for 45 points in 34 games.
Andrej Kudrna, who leads the team with 18 goals, has been another bright spot this season, notching 39 points in 33 games, although he hasn’t played a game for Red Deer since mid-December, when he left to join up with Team Slovakia ahead of the World Junior Hockey Championship.
“We want to continue to win games, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens after Christmas,” said Wallin, who knows his club will be missing a couple of players to start 2011.
“Andrej is with Team Slovakia for the World Juniors, and we know we’re losing Matt Dumba and Lucas Grayson to the World Under-17 challenge, so we’ll have pieces out of the line up to end December. But I think that’s to be a challenge for our group, to overcome that, and not use it as an excuse.
“Whenever that happens, there’s an opportunity for other guys to step into bigger roles, and that’s really what it’s all about. There’s going to be an opportunity for some guys to play, and we expect our group to continue to play well and continue to win games in that stretch.”
Another player who has had a big impact in Red Deer’s record this season is 20-year-old netminder Darcy Kuemper.
The sixth round pick of the Minnesota Wild has been in between the pipes for every single Rebels win this season, and leads the WHL with a miniscule goals against average of 1.94.
“That’s what we expect out of him,” said Wallin.
“I’ve been having that conversation with him ever since last season when he came into camp as a 19-year-old, that our expectation for him was to be one of the top goaltenders in the league.
“This year, coming back as a 20-year-old, he’s really taken advantage of the opportunity. What I really notice in Kuemps this season is just a more confident, more even keel approach. His emotional control is much better.”
One player who has turned a few heads is 19-year-old Byron Froese, a guy many fans didn’t know too much about when he was sent to Red Deer by Everett in exchange for Landon Ferraro over the summer.
“We knew we were getting a good player,” said Wallin when asked if he was surprised by Froese’s 37 first half points.
“He’s got a passion for the game and when we made the trade, the comment I made was that he was a different type of player than what we were giving up. He’s a guy that’s very well rounded, and there isn’t a situation that I don’t feel comfortable putting him out on the ice for. I think he’s a little more skilled than I was expecting.”
The Rebels close out the 2010 portion of their schedule with a game tomorrow night against Lethbridge at the Enmax Centrium.
Puck drop is set for 7 p.m.