In a year where anything could have happened, the Red Deer Rebels climbed the ladder and clawed their way into a first round playoff matchup against the Lethbridge Hurricanes, starting this Friday and Saturday in Lethbridge.
“The boys in the room are pretty pumped for the start of playoffs,” Rebels Captain Grayson Pawlenchuk said.
The Rebels go into the series riding high after closing out the season winning 18 of their last 26 games, which dragged them out of last place in the WHL standings and into the big dance.
“We have been a good hockey team and we have to carry that into the playoffs,” Rebels Coach Brent Sutter said. “We are a young team but we have to have the mindset that every game is a big game for us.”
Sutter said there was a point during the season where it was hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel.
“That is how crazy this game can be,” he said.
“You start winning games and you gain confidence. Our young players started getting used to the league and playing better and our older guys started playing like our best players need to play.
“We’ve got good goaltending and the more you win, the more confidence you get. You ride the wave and we certainly did that.”
The Hurricanes, on the other hand, are coming into the season losers of eight of their last 10 games.
Sutter, however, isn’t paying attention to how they finished the season.
“We have to play well,” he said. “They have good goaltending and they have some key players you got to be good against. Overall, they are a good team and they’ve got experience with guys who got to the semi-finals last year.”
Pawlenchuk said his team received a confidence boost after beating Lethbridge in their own building and at home at the Enmax Centrium and he said his team is looking to win Game 1 and 2 in Lethbridge.
“It will be tough in their building but we are capable of doing it,” he said. “We won in their building before, so that shows they are beatable.”
Red Deer will likely continue to ride the hot streak of their veterans Reese Johnson, Brandon Hagel, Kristian Reichel, Mason McCarty and Pawlenchuk.
“Those five guys are keys to your forward group and they took their games to another level. They played like 19, 20-year-olds and they played like our best players. They got rewarded for it and from the team standpoint it certainly made a big difference,” Sutter said
The Rebels head into the series without star defencemen Alexander Alexeyev, who is currently on the IR.
Alexeyev is ranked anywhere from 22-41 by scouts and is more than likely to be selected in this year’s NHL entry draft.
Sutter said he has no idea whether Alexeyev will make it back.
“Credit to the kids, when one of their top players went down, they stepped up and our defence has played really well,” Sutter said.
“At the end of the day, you would like to have your top players in your lineup but you can’t do anything about injuries. You play with the guys you got.”
With repeated WHL Goalie of the Week awards between them, the Rebels are comfortable with either Riley Lamb or Ethan Anders between the pipes. Sutter said he will make his decision Friday who will start the series.
“Both of them have been playing well and they both have been winning Goalie of the Week,” Pawlenchuk said. “They are both going for us right now.”
He added that every single shift is huge in the playoffs and that is what he has been telling the younger guys who haven’t been there before.
“If something goes wrong, you can’t let it get to you. You have to stay in the game. Everyone is fighting for their lives,” he said.
Game 1 goes Friday at 7 p.m. followed by Game 2 on Saturday at 7 p.m. Game 3 and 4 will both be at the Enmax Centrium on Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Like us on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Lacombeexpress/
and follow us on twitter at https://twitter.com/lacombeexpress.