For the first time since 2002-2003, the Red Deer Rebels are Central Division champions after sweeping Edmonton in a regular season ending home and home set this past weekend.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Byron Froese (with two goals), and Colin Archer scored for the Rebels, who built up a 4-1 lead and then held on for a 4-3 win over the Oil Kings Friday night at Rexall Place.
With the win, the Rebels earned their fourth Central Division banner in franchise history and head coach Jesse Wallin says winning the division was a goal of theirs right from day one.
“It’s always important in a competitive environment. I mean, your goal is to win and starting out, we had to go through some growing pains but we had a goal to turn this thing back into a championship organization,” said Wallin.
“We’re not there yet, but we’ve taken some significant steps towards that. You want to be a top team, you want to be on top of everyone and it’s a big accomplishment. It’s something the guys really worked towards and these last few games here were really important towards achieving that and just to say you did it, to say you were first.”
Nugent-Hopkins agreed with his head coach.
“That’s huge for us,” said the 17-year-old, who is expected to be a top three pick in this summers NHL Entry Draft.
“I mean, first of all, it’s home ice advantage through the first two rounds, which is huge. And just getting that banner, it’s something that we can look back on for years and years.”
With the Central Division banner all wrapped up, Red Deer went into Saturday’s regular season finale at the Centrium knowing that a win over Edmonton would set up a first round playoff series with the Oil Kings.
Nugent-Hopkins, with his first of two goals on the night, got Red Deer into a 1-0 lead, taking a nice pass from Andrej Kudrna and burying it on Edmonton net-minder Jon Groenhyde but the Oil Kings, as they did the night before, fought back with Cam Abney beating Darcy Kuemper to send the teams to the first intermission tied at 1-1.
Nugent-Hopkins put the Rebels back out in front 2-1 in the second period when he took a pass from Kudrna, faked the shot and then went around Groenhyde for his 31st of the year.
The Oil Kings though had their chances to tie things up in third period, including an almost two minute five-on-three powerplay when Brad Deagle and Colin Archer were sent to sin bin four seconds apart with just over six minutes to play.
“I thought it (the 5-on-3 kill) was huge,” said Wallin.
“It was a gutsy effort and you know, the boys didn’t know this but Brandon had won their game so really, by the third period, whether we won or lost was meaningless as far as the standings. It was just a matter of wanting to win a hockey game and I thought it was just a gutsy effort. I mean, we had guys getting in front of pucks, blocking shots, giving those second and third efforts, and I thought we really fed off that.”
Brett Ferguson, with his 23rd goal off the season, would seal the deal for Red Deer, scoring into an empty net with 40 seconds left to go, giving the Rebels a 3-1 win.
“Our goal over the last seven or eight games here was to have momentum going into the playoffs,” said Wallin, who watched his club rattle of four straight wins to end the regular season.
`”We felt that was something that we let slip last year. We played real well until the end of February and then kind of let off the gas a bit and its such a fine line between playing well and winning games and letting them slip away. I think at the end of last season, we kind of let it slip so its something that we have really harped on and pushed for and its something the guys have taken pride in, so we wanted to finish strong. We wanted to have a good run here towards the end of the year and put a string of wins together and have momentum going into the playoffs.”
The Rebels will now get ready to host the Oil Kings once more, but this time, it’ll be the first round of the playoffs, with games one and two set for Friday and Saturday night at the Centrium.
“They’re a very good skating team and we know that,” said Nugent-Hopkins who finished the year with 106 points to lead all Rebels in scoring.
“They’re a very hard working team and they always give us a good game so we know it’s going to be a battle for the first series.”