Rebels expect tight, physical series with Hitmen
Never mind that 9-0 thumping the Red Deer Rebels laid on the Calgary Hitmen the last time they met, March 11 at the Scotiabank Saddledome.
Throw that particular contest out and the two teams had a highly competitive head-to-head series during the WHL regular season. The Rebels came out on the winning end of six of the eight contests, but three games went to overtime, with Red Deer winning two of the extra session outings.
Rebels captain Jayden Grubbe is expecting more of the latter when the teams meet in the opening round of the playoffs. The Eastern Conference best-of-seven quarter-final opens with Games 1 and 2 at the Peavey Mart Centrium Friday and Saturday.
“That one game, we’re not really thinking much about that,” Grubbe said Tuesday, in reference to the March 11 contest. “Every other game has been pretty close. They keep it tight, they work hard and they’re a good team, so we’re expecting their best game and we’re going to have to play our best to beat them.
“We’re justing trying to focus on what we can do and our game plan.”
Grubbe, a Central Division Second Team All-Star forward, said any message he relays to his teammates this week will focus on the here and now.
“Just (take it) game by game, shift by shift,” he offered. “You can’t look too far ahead and get overwhelmed over anything. You just have to be able to reset after every shift, every game.
“It can be a long series but you have to have fun with it too. We’ve been counting down the days, we’re getting more and more excited, getting ready to go.”
One common point during the QE II season series was the physicality and bitterness exhibited by both teams. Simply put, there was no love lost in any of the eight meetings.
“Just being a team you play a lot in the year, you’re going to kind of get into it with them,” said Grubbe. “They play hard, that’s just part of being a rivalry team — you’re going to get into it once in awhile. It will be fun.”
As Central Division First Team All-Star team forward Kai Uchacz noted, the Rebels can give as much as they receive, and often more.
“We like to play that heavy style too,” he said. “We’re excited. It’s going to be a really good series.”
While the Rebels finished atop the Central Division with 43 wins and 92 points, 22 ahead of third-place Calgary, the Hitmen won four of their final five regular season outings — including a key home-and-home sweep of Medicine Hat and a 3-2 come-from-behind win over host Lethbridge — to gain entry to the playoffs as the conference’s seventh seed.
“They’re a great team, they work hard, they play a fast game, a pretty honest game,” said Uchacz. “We’re going to have to be ready for what they bring.”
The Rebels closed out their regular season schedule last weekend, losing 6-4 at Lethbridge after trailing 5-1, and downing the Hurricanes 5-1 in the rematch at the Centrium. The previous weekend, they split a two-game series with the visiting Swift Current Broncos, a part of intense games that resembled playoff hockey.
“That last week was a good tune-up for us. Now we have to play with that speed, intensity and compete,” said Uchacz. “Kind of stick together and work really hard.”
Notable: Three Rebels — Uchacz, defenceman Christoffer Sedoff and netminder Rhett Stoesser — were named to the Central Division First All-Star Team announced Tuesday . . . Uchacz credited his mates for helping him reach the 50-goal mark Friday in Lethbridge. “That was good to hit it Friday. I can’t thank my teammates enough for finding me in the slot and everything they’ve done for me this season,” he stated . . . Ben King, who scored a league-best 52 goals in 2021-22 and notched 17 goals and recorded 35 points in 30 games this season, missed the final two regular season games and is considered ‘day-to-day’ with an upper body injury . . . Calgary will start the series without veteran blue liner Keagan Slaney. He was suspended three games for a charging major and game misconduct March 25 at Edmonton, and for being a repeat offender. Slaney has two games left to serve . . . Hitmen overage netminder Brayden Peters is the final WHL regular season goaltender of the week. He posted a pair of road victories during the week, recording a 2.00 goals-against average and .926 save percentage in the process. Peters was 13th in the league in GAA this season at 2.84, three spots back of the Rebels’ Kyle Kelsey (2.64). The two stoppers were almost identical in save percentage — .907 for Kelsey and .909 for Peters . . . The Hitmen had the league’s top regular season penalty kill at 83.7 per cent, while the Rebels were fifth at 81 per cent. Red Deer, however, had the superior power play at 27.1 per cent, sixth overall. Calgary was 16th at 19.4 per cent . . . The third and fourth games of the series will go Monday and next Wednesday in Calgary. Games five to seven, if necessary, are slated for April 7 in Red Deer, April 9 in Calgary and April 11 at the Centrium.