Rebels 8 Ice 4
It was a night of milestones for the Red Deer Rebels Saturday at the Centrium.
Brent Sutter posted his 500th Western Hockey League win — the ninth coach in league history to reach that mark — Brandon Hagel notched his 40th goal of the season and rookie Chase Leslie scored his first ever in the WHL as the Rebels doubled up on the Kootenay ice 8-4 before 5,173 fans.
“I never thought about it until I came off and they told me to go back on the bench,” said the Rebels GM/head coach, who was saluted by the fans at the game’s conclusion.
“I don’t know. Just been around a long time,” he joked. “It’s really that at the end of the day.”
As for the game, a contest which featured seven second-period goals, four by the Rebels . . .
“I liked our first period and I liked our third,” said Sutter, whose squad led 3-1 after 20 minutes and notched the lone goal of the final frame. “I just thought we did some good things in the third with our structure and we didn’t give up much.”
Sutter wasn’t thrilled with the wide-open middle stanza.
“I didn’t like our second. I thought we were sloppy and once we got up three or four goals I just thought we got away from our game and started doing things that you shouldn’t be doing, things you can’t afford to do at this time of the year,” he said.
“As soon as you start getting some bad habits you know where that leads to. We addressed it after the second and in the third we were much better.”
The Rebels were up 3-0 before the game was 12 minutes old, with Cam Hausinger starting the onslaught at 6:47 by cashing a rebound after Ethan Sakowich rang a shot off the post.
Captain Reese Johnson made it 2-0 with a short-handed goal near the midway point of the period, converting a pass from Hagel on a two-on-one break. He then potted his 24th of the season on the power play, taking a feed from Dawson Barteaux and blasting a one-timer past Ice goalie Jesse Makaj from the top of the left circle.
“We talked about that right before we went out . . . we wanted to come out flying,” said Johnson. “We did just kind of let off a bit and we have to learn to keep our foot on the pedal.”
The Ice got an own rebound goal from Nolan Orzeck just under two minutes later, setting up a wild second period that was kicked off with Leslie’s first WHL career marker, his point shot finding its way through a crowd and into the back of the net.
“It’s kind of been a running thing all year with the kids bugging him and so forth,” Sutter said jokingly. “Les has played well for us as a 16-year-old when he’s come into our lineup, he’s done a good job.
“There’s always going to be things that 16-year-old players do that in time they’ll improve on. But he’s played very well for us when he’s played.”
Jeff de Wit went hard to the net and directed a pass from Zak Smith past Makaj for a 5-1 lead, before Jaeger White got one back for the visitors on a bounce off the end boards.
Kootenay then pulled to within two as Connor McClennon found the twine with a rising wrist shot from the right circle during an Ice power play.
Smith restored Red Deer’s three-goal margin roughly five minutes later with a redirection of a point shot by Carson Sass, Jakin Smallwood replied for the Ice shortly after and Hagel potted his 40th goal, on the power play, to round out the scoring explosion, poking home a loose puck at the edge of the crease.
“What do you say about Hages? He’s been awesome and we obviously need him big time down the stretch and moving forward,” said Sutter. “Every game is a big game and you have to have your older players playing well and you need good goaltending.
“Obviously you don’t have Alex (rearguard Alexeyev, who suffered a lower body injury in Friday’s 5-3 win over Brandon) and your defence and forwards, everyone, have to step up. Our young guys have to do their jobs and continue to improve.
“Every game is such a battle now. You don’t know from one day to the next where you’re going to be sitting in the standings, but all you can do is just take care of your business and win as many games as you can.”
Josh Tarzwell, with his 10th of the season, scored late in the game — off a rebound during a goalmouth scramble — and the Rebels pulled four points clear of Brandon in the battle for the second-wild card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Still, Johnson said there’s room for improvement over the club’s final four regular-season games.
“There were lots of turnovers we didn’t want tonight,” he said. “We were kind of loose the first two periods and that’s something that can’t be happening at this time of the year. But I thought we were better in the third.”
The Rebels have struggled to score in too many games during the second half of the season, but erupted for 13 goals during the weekend.
“Obviously we’re not used to that lately anyway, but when we’re up like that we can’t allow them to score those goals,” said Johnson. “Some of those goals tonight were from mistakes that can’t be happening.”
Notable: The Rebels remain tied with the Medicine Hat Tigers, 4-2 winners over Brandon Saturday, for the first-wild card playoff berth . . . Anders made 23 saves for his 29th win of the season. Makaj stopped 19 of 26 shots before being replaced by Curtis Meger at the start of the third period. Meger blocked 12 of 13 shots . . . Sass and Barteaux each picked up two assists . . . Selected as the three stars were (1) Hagel, who also contributed three helpers, (2) Johnson and (3) McClennon . . . Red Deer hosts the Edmonton Oil Kings Tuesday, then visits the Tigers 24 hours later. The Rebels conclude their regular-season schedule with a home game versus Lethbridge Friday and a final contest against the Ice Sunday in Cranbrook.