END OF YEAR - The Red Deer Rebels cleaned out their lockers after a year that saw them rise from the bottom of the WHL to a playoff spot. Todd Colin Vaughan/Red Deer Express

Rebels clean out lockers after season of ups and down

Rebels went from last in WHL to a playoff series against Lethbridge

There won’t be many, if any, seasons that play out the way this one did for the Red Deer Rebels.

After falling to last place in the WHL prior to Jan. 23rd, the Rebels completely flipped the script on their season — pushing themselves to a third place in the WHL’s Central Division and a five-game hard-fought series against the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

Coach Brent Sutter said his team learned a lot throughout the series, in which they eventually lost four games to one.

“When you look at the series and go through the five games, the first two games I thought our team learned a lot through the process of learning what it takes to be a physical team,” he said. “They came at us pretty hard and we didn’t respond too well in the first two games.”

Following Games 1 and 2, which they lost 6-0 and 8-3 respectively, the Rebels were arguably the better team for the remainder of the series — with a Game 3 loss being a tough blow with two goals called back on home ice.

The Rebels were also up a goal heading into the third period of Game 5, before ultimately losing 6-4

“We went back to Lethbridge and for two periods, we were right there,” Sutter said. “When you give up six, eight and five goals against in the first three games, you aren’t normally going to win too many playoff games doing that.”

Despite the early playoff exit, Sutter credited his team for playing much better defensively in the second half of the season, shifting their goals against average from 3.8 down to 2.8 after Jan. 23rd.

“I thought our team started making some changes in the right direction when we started bringing in some of the young kids,” Sutter said. “It pushed the older guys we did keep here to be better players and they were.”

Sutter added he hopes the lessons of this year will carry on to next season.

“We are going to be a younger team next year again and those young guys that had bigger roles this year have to continue to improve and get better in their roles,” he said.

Sutter compared the young nucleus he is currently operating with to his teams in the early 2000s when the Rebels went on to win a Memorial Cup.

“There is a lot of encouraging signs moving forward but we have to make sure these young kids understand the commitment that has to be made,” he said.

Seventeen-year-old Goaltender Ethan Anders, who won multiple goaltender of the week awards this season, figures to play strongly into that youth movement.

“When he comes back as an 18-year-old, there is going to be higher standards on him. You can’t have those nights where you let in a couple soft goals. The standards become higher for you,” Sutter said.

The end of the year also marks the end of Rebels Captain Grayson Pawlenchuk’s, Brandon Hagel’s and Mason McCarty’s WHL careers.

Sutter credited Pawlenchuk, who played five straight years for the Rebels, with always being strong though multiple injuries, including a fractured elbow that cost him nearly three months and a long rehab process.

“Pawly was a very responsible player and is a great young man,” Sutter said. “Hopefully something good will come out of this for him.

“Maybe he can go to a pro camp and get a chance, if not he can go to a real good CIS school and continue to play.”

Pawlenchuk said it hasn’t sank in yet that his time with the Rebels is complete.

“I learned a lot here and grew a lot. Looking back to how I was when I was 15 or 16 here, compared to how I am now — I have grown up a lot and matured a lot,” Pawlenchuk said. “I am very thankful for my time here and everything the Rebels have done for me.”

Pawlenchuk said he hopes to get on with a pro tryout somewhere but he also has other options.

“Hopefully I will get a pro tryout, but if not I will definitely be going to school and using the scholarship that I have run up,” he said.

Sutter said that McCarty was a solid player for his team, leading the team in goal scoring and assists.

“It was exciting and fun.,” McCarty said. “Hopefully I helped the young kids learn some stuff. I will be following them all in the future.”

Buffalo Sabres prospect Hagel said being a leader for the young kids on the Rebels was huge for him.

“Overall the start of our season wasn’t what we wanted but as we moved along we got some kids in here and it was awesome,” Hagel said. “It was a good experience for myself to go through something like that.

“Bringing in the younger guys and me having to be a bigger leader helped me be a better person.”

He added he is going to take the next few days to evaluate everything and speak with his agent regarding his future.

Sutter said he was proud of his team for turning around the season.

“Who would have thought in January that we would ever get to the playoffs. People would have thought I was crazy,” he said.

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