Rebels’ recent success has been multiple weeks in the making
The Red Deer Rebels just completed an eye-opening road trip, garnering seven of a possible eight points, but the club can hardly be labelled as an overnight hit.
The Rebels might have finally hit their full stride with wins at Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Moose Jaw, where they toppled the Western Hockey Leagues’ top-ranked Warriors 3-1, and a 4-3 overtime loss at Brandon, but the team has improved at a gradual level in recent weeks.
Red Deer, which has earned points in seven games running, has been a team on the rise in the New Year despite struggling through a lengthy losing streak that ended with a 4-1 win over Medicine Hat Jan. 23. There was the odd step back, like the 5-1 home-ice loss to Prince Albert, but the majority of the contests during the rough stretch were highly competitive in nature.
The bottom line is that the Rebels haven’t lost in regulation time since snapping their losing streak, and have pulled to within six points of the Kootenay Ice for the final playoff berth in the Central Division.
“It’s been building for a while, there’s no doubt,” associate coach Jeff Truitt said Monday, in reference to the club’s recent surge. “The guys have been playing better and you’ve seen signs of it coming together.
“But it really came together (on the road trip) because we worked hard. In a lot of those games out there we kept things simple, did what we needed to do and limited a lot of big time mistakes.
“Our guys did a really good job of just simplifying the game. We did some really good stuff detail wise, but a lot of guys put in a lot of great performances on that road trip.”
It’s also helped that netminders Ethan Anders, who recently earned WHL goaltender of the week and rookie of the month honours, and Riley Lamb have both excelled during the run of success. Lamb, in fact, is the current WHL goaltender of the week, having posted two wins, a 1.96 goal-against average and a .934 save percentage during the seven-day period that ended Sunday.
Anders has spiked his numbers in recent weeks and currently sits with a 2.98 GAA and a .908 save percentage. Lamb’s overall numbers (3.71, .891) aren’t as impressive, but they’re improving.
“That’s a part of it, our goaltending has been great,” said Truitt. “No matter if it’s been Lamb or Anders, both of them have been playing at another level, which is tremendous. It’s good to have both guys going right now.”
As for the belief that a team’s best players have to be the best players on a consistent basis, the Rebels are also getting just that from their veterans.
“They’ve been kind of driving the train here a bit, which has been great. But that’s what you have to expect out of your older guys,” said Truitt.
“The (Kristian) Reichels, the (Grayson) Pawlenchuks, the (Brandon) Hagels and (Mason) McCartys . . . they’ve done a great job, have continued to push forward and are being rewarded.”
But it’s been a complete team game that’s fuelled the Rebels uprising, with the club’s younger set also contributing on a regular basis. Forwards Alex Morozoff, 16, and Josh Tarzwell, 17, are two such examples.
“There’s been a lot of them,” said Truitt. “(Defenceman Dawson) Barteaux has played real well, Tarzwell and Morozoff have played well. It goes down the line.
“That’s the nice part about doing it by committee — different guys are kind of shining at different times and that’s what you want from your team.”
Another reason for Red Deer’s recent surge is a penalty kill that has improved leaps and bounds due to an added element of aggression.
“You want to limit a team’s time and space,” said Truitt. “We’ve done a real good job of pressuring the puck and recovering the puck. If you pressure you open up holes, but if you pressure and recover and other guys are anticipating things, then you get that constant pressure that’s been real good for us.”
The Rebels’ next three games — Wednesday at the Centrium versus the Calgary Hitmen and a home-and-home set with the Edmonton Oil Kings Friday and Saturday — are against the only two teams below them in the WHL standings.
Taking either club lightly will almost certainly be disastrous for the Rebels, whose room for error while attempting to chase down a playoff berth over the remaining 19 regular-season games is extremely limited.
“We can’t be complacent. We don’t have a lot of games left and it’s got to be throttle down from here on in,” said Truitt. “Every night is going to be key for us. Just keep that level high . . . that’s the goal.”
Rebels vs. Calgary Hitmen, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Centrium
The Hitmen posted a 6-5 shootout win over the Kamloops Blazers Saturday, their lone victory on a five-game B.C. Division trip. Calgary owns a 16-30-5-1 record and sits fifth in the Central Division and 11th in the Eastern Conference. The Hitmen are 3-7-0-1 in their last 10 games …LW Jacob Stukel is the club’s offensive kingpin with 26 goals and 41 points. C Jake Kryski is next in line with 37 points (10g,27a), while C Mark Kastelic (15-17-32), D Vladislav Yeryomenko (11-20-31 in 43 games) and RW Riley Stotts are Calgary’s other go-to players. Stotts is averaging nearly a point per game since being acquired from the Swift Current Broncos, with 10 goals and 16 assists in 27 outings . . . Overage veteran Nick Schneider is 44th among all WHL netminders with a 3.74 goals-against average and 41st in save percentage at .883 . . . Stukel was selected by the Vancouver Canucks in the sixth round of the 2016 NHL entry draft. Schneider signed a free agent entry-level deal with the Calgary Flames in September of 2015.
Injuries: Calgary — G Nick Sanders (lower body, 2-4 weeks), D Jackson van de Leest (lower body, 2-4 weeks), D Drea Esposito (upper body, indefinite), C Conner Chaulk (upper body, day-to-day). Red Deer — D Colin Paradis (upper body, indefinite).
Special teams: Calgary — Power play 19 per cent, 17th overall prior to Tuesday’s games; penalty kill 78.6 per cent, 11th. Red Deer — Power play 16.8 per cent, 20th overall; penalty kill 76.7 per cent, 15th.