The Red Deer Rebels booked their ticket to the Memorial Cup semi-final game in dramatic fashion Wednesday night getting revenge on the WHL champion Brandon Wheat Kings with a 2-1 victory in overtime.
A beautiful one-timer goal by Evan Polei turned out to be the final straw that broke the Wheat Kings’ back, officially eliminating them from the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament to secure the second place spot for the Rebels.
“The adrenaline’s just pumping. You’re not thinking, you’re just so excited that you scored that goal,” said Polei after the game.
The big left handed winger from Wetaskiwin scored just 3:50 into the overtime period on a pass from linemate Conner Bleackley to seal the deal.
“To be honest I thought he was going to shoot it,” laughed Polei about Bleackley’s cross-ice pass.
It was a sweet victory for the Rebels, who were eliminated from the WHL playoffs in five games by the Wheat Kings in the Eastern Conference final.
“I guess part of it is no one has short memories. I know that we were beaten in the semis by Brandon and rightly so. They’ve got a very very good hockey team. That’s the thing about this tournament, you can come in here and be a champion in your own league but if things don’t go exactly right you might not have success in it,” said Rebels’ Head Coach/GM Brent Sutter after the game.
The game itself was one of the closest and most exciting match-ups of the tournament so far. Both the Rebels and the Wheat Kings came out flying and matched each other blow-for-blow but neither were able to find the back of the net in the opening frame.
“It was a real tight checking game. There wasn’t much room, much space out there,” Sutter said.
It took until halfway through the second period, but eventually the Wheat Kings were able to break through as Tim McGauley sniped a shot past Rebels’ goaltender Rylan Toth to give the Wheat Kings their first lead of the tournament.
Brandon goalie Jordan Papirny did his best to keep the Rebels at bay through the rest of the second and the third period, stopping nearly 20 shots in that time frame, but the Rebels refused to give up.
Eventually, with the Rebels on the power-play, the breakthrough came. At 14:55 of the third period, Adam Musil jammed home a rebound off a Haydn Fleury shot for his first goal of the tournament to tie it up at one.
Because of the way the Memorial Cup’s tie breaker rules work, the goal all but guaranteed Red Deer a berth in the semi-finals, as the Wheat Kings would have had to beat them by three goals or more in order to leapfrog the Rebels into second place.
Despite that, Red Deer knew they wanted to be the ones to end Brandon’s season.
“Our mindset was to win the game tonight. We didn’t want to have a situation, personally for ourselves where we lost the game but got in on a goal differential,” Sutter said.
It was a disappointing loss for the Wheat Kings, who finished the tournament with an 0-3 record.
“We had higher hopes coming into the tournament, obviously, than how it played out. But the three teams that played the best are the three teams that are still playing. So credit to those teams and it’ll be a great finish to the tournament,” said Wheat Kings’ Head Coach/GM Kelly McCrimmon.
“Somewhere between Seattle and Red Deer we lost our mojo and we never got going anywhere near the level that we had in the playoffs.”
The Rebels are back in action on Friday night when they take on the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the semi-final game to determine who will play the London Knights for the Memorial Cup in the final game, Sunday. Puck drop on Friday’s game will be at 6 p.m.