Since snaring four consecutive victories on their recent tour of British Columbia, the Red Deer Rebels have been here, there and everywhere in terms of their overall performance.
As a result, the team has posted a 3-4 record since returning from that ultra successful WHL road trip, not a good sign for a team that not long ago was one of the league’s hottest.
“We just haven’t been consistent. That’s probably been our biggest problem,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter, whose squad will take a two-game losing streak into Lethbridge Friday night and will then entertain Medicine Hat 24 hours later.
The Rebels turned in an outstanding effort Feb. 24 against the visiting Swift Current Broncos while securing a 5-3 win, then edged visiting Calgary 3-2 in overtime and downed Kootenay 5-4 in a shootout at the Centrium despite — arguably — being outplayed.
What followed were 6-1 and 6-2 setbacks in Medicine Hat and Calgary last weekend.
The Rebels were never really in the game following the opening period Saturday at Medicine Hat, but led Calgary 2-0 after 40 minutes Sunday before experiencing a third-period collapse.
“We were really good for a couple periods, then in the third we quit moving our feet, our work ethic dropped off and discipline became a factor,” said Sutter.
“It’s all between the ears with the kids right now. We have to get mentally stronger and we have to get our game to where we can look at it and say this is who we are, this is how we are . . . this is what allows us to have success and gives ourselves a chance to have success.
“When we were on our run during the (B.C. Division) road trip the details in our game were very good and that part of our game has gotten away from us again. To me, it’s just getting back to where we need to be mentally, understanding and realizing the situation we’re in, that we need to win games.”
The Rebels are in great shape in regard to qualifying for the playoffs. Red Deer is seven points clear of Kootenay for the final Central Division post-season berth with both teams having five regular-season games remaining.
From here on in, the team has to concentrate strictly on its own schedule and forget about scoreboard watching.
In other words, the Rebels have to take care of their own business.
“Just focus in our ourselves and how we have to play. If you do that the right way you’re going to give yourselves a chance to be in the playoffs, that’s the way you have to look at it,” said Sutter.
“But we have to get everybody, and that’s everybody, back to playing the right way. To a man, we’ve gotten back to being inconsistent. It doesn’t matter if it’s our older players or younger players, it’s been the same thing.
“Your best players have to be your best players and we all know that. We talk to them about it, they know that too. Unfortunately we haven’t had them going all at the same time to be our best.”
Goaltenders Ethan Anders and Riley Lamb were excellent in late January and February and while Lamb carried his strong play into March, he’s also had his down moments.
“Our goaltending hasn’t been consistent, it’s been exactly what our group’s been,” said Sutter. “We have to get back to where we need to be mentally and we have to take this time of the year seriously, not nonchalantly.”
All of that being said, it can’t be ignored that the Rebels, through their own mostly solid play and an extended slide by Kootenay, have built a comfortable lead over the Ice whom they trailed by 12 points in late January. That’s a 19-point turnaround in less than two months.
“Yet there’s still a lot of work to be done here just to get ourselves to the dance,” said Sutter. “It’s going to be interesting to see how we respond through this (regular-season homestretch). It’s a time our young players can learn from and make themselves better for it and our older players can make themselves better moving forward.
“There no magic wand, it’s just getting back to being committed to how we have to play and we need everyone to bring their game up on a period-to-period, game-to-game basis.”
The Rebels’ remaining schedule became more difficult with the recent loss of Alex Alexeyev, who suffered an upper-body injury that will keep him out of the lineup for another five weeks.
But the talented Russian rearguard missed three and half weeks in January and February when he returned to his home country following the sudden death of his mother, and the Rebels won seven of nine games in his absence.
“That was a group thing. To a man, we got better,” said Sutter. “We started getting good, consistent goaltending night in and night out. Our defence played solid and our forwards were playing a real strong two-way game as a group.
“So it has been done. They’ve shown themselves as a group and as individuals that they can do it.
“But when you lose your focus, you get a little complacent and get settled in. Now they have to get our of their comfort level again and we need to do it right away.”