After a season that started about as poorly as you can imagine, the Red Deer Rebels have beat the odds and put themselves into the WHL playoffs.
“Obviously it is a huge win,” Rebels Coach Brent Sutter said. “It clinches a playoff spot for us and when we look back to January 24th, we were 12 points out of a playoff spot. To accomplish what we have accomplished says a lot about the kids inside the room.”
The Rebels were coming into their Saturday game against the Medicine Hat Tigers with the prime opportunity to seal a playoff spot and third place in the WHL’s Eastern Conference Central Division.
The Rebels going into the game had four games remaining and only needed to notch points in those games to end the Kootenay Ice’s chances of usurping their position.
Red Deer put themselves into this opportune position after taking care of business, winning 4-1 against the Lethbridge Hurricanes the previous evening.
The Tigers, on the other end, were coming off a 6-4 win over the Edmonton Oil Kings and sat comfortable in first place of the Central Division with 68 points on the year, eight ahead of the Hurricanes.
The Rebels would spend much of the first period down a men, with the Rebels taking three minors compared to the Tigers taking just one late in the frame.
Tigers d-man Kristians Rubins would capitalize on the the first Medicine Hat powerplay with a huge shot from the point after Rebels Captain Grayson Pawlenchuk took a delay of game penalty.
Luckily for the Rebels, Brandon Hagel would have the quick answer after he tipped in a pass through Tigers netminder Michael Bullion.
Red Deer would fend off the remaining minors in the period and would head into the second period with 1:48 left in their powerplay after Rubins took a cross-checking penalty on Kristian Reichel.
It would, however, be the Tigers who would pounce first in the second after Bryan Lockner put one past the defence and score and nifty goal on Rebels goalie Ethan Anders to put his team up 2-1 early.
The remainder of the period would be spent in the Rebels own end, but fortunately for Red Deer, Anders would make a variety of solid stops to keep the game at 2-1.
“The second period wasn’t our best period but overall we played pretty well,” Hagel said.
Reichel would come out early in the third for the Rebels to tie it up after he was able to hold the offensive zone and roof a snap-shot past Bullion for his 31st goal of the season.
The Rebels would have to kill another penalty late in the period, but would quickly have an opportunity on the man advantage immediately after.
Hagel would score his second of the game on the powerplay to put the Rebels up 3-2 with 4:10 to play. The Rebels would follow that up with another powerplay goal by Reichel, both goals catapulting Red Deer into the playoffs.
Hagel said his line has been clicking.
“We are our top players. Everyone knows it and Brent harps on it all the time. We gotta’ be our best players” Hagel said. “This is the most important time of the year and guys are trying to get contracts, guys are trying to get drafted. Now is the time to show up.”
Hagel would add an empty netter for his hat trick, leading to the final score of 5-2. Ethan Anders would finish with 33 saves in the win.
“We fought hard in the third period and the emotion was huge,” Hagel said. “Mason (McCarty) hasn’t played in the playoffs yet so I am pretty excited for him.”
He added his team turned, “It around and now we are in the playoffs. Not much more to be said.”