Rebels look at remaining games as fuel for playoffs

Rob Wallator

It’s never too early to get into playoff mode.

The Red Deer Rebels, who clinched a playoff berth Feb. 25 and nailed down top spot in the Central Division March 8, have known for some time that they won’t be moving up or down the standings.

And yet, with four regular-season games remaining, the Rebels have to keep the pedal down in order to enter the post-season on a roll.

“Just trying to have that mentality,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk acknowledged Tuesday.

The Rebels just split a weekend series with the Calgary Hitmen, host the Swift Current Broncos Friday and Saturday and then close out with a home-and-home versus the Lethbridge Hurricanes the following weekend.

“I think playing these three teams back-to-back can really help you treat it like a playoff series, a short two games,” he added.

“It’s a mentality that you’re not just playing one game and moving on, you’re playing them to try and play your playoff hockey and kind of wear them out for the second game. You can have the mentality that a playoff series is not won or lost on the first shift, the first period or the first game.

“So that mentality helps going down the stretch without worrying about the standings. I think us hitting a bump in the road a couple weeks back also makes for a little more urgency and we’ve seen that as of late.

“I like where our team is getting to. I think that’s important — that we understand where we were and where our team is getting to. Now we just keep building on that.”

Secondary scoring has also entered the picture in the last half dozen or so games, a good sign with playoffs slated to begin March 31. 

“For sure, you have to have everybody scoring, chipping in,” said Konowalchuk. “Going back a couple weeks ago, when you hit the rough patches you have to analyze what you can do better and where you can improve.

“I think one of the areas is getting pucks to the net from different areas, not just scoring chance areas. I think we’ve seen that it helps some other guys score goals as well.”

Of course, defenceman Mats Lindgren has been on a real heater with 11 points in his last five outings, including five (1g,4a) in a 6-3 win March 3 at Brandon and a goal and two helpers in Saturday’s 9-0 demolition of the Calgary Hitmen.

Forwards Ollie Josephson (pictured above) and Craig Armstrong (pictured below) have also contributed. Armstrong has six points (3g,3a) in six games heading into this weekend and Josephson has four in five, including a pair of assists in Saturday’s wipeout win.

In addition, Carson Birnie scored once and assisted on another goal Saturday and Dwayne Jean Jr. notched a goal in Friday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Hitmen.

army 4

Josephson and Armstrong , in particular, also bring other elements to the team.

Josephson has been admirable all season especially considering he’s a rookie, and in recent contests has taken his game to another level.

“His game just keeps improving. He’s always done the little things well and right now he could be our best centre with carrying the puck out of his own end,” said Konowalchuk. “For a young kid, to have the poise and confidence to do that is impressive.

“He has good speed and he gets inside body position in a lot of battles, plus he’s starting to chip in a bit more offensively. With him and Birnie and these guys improving, they all complement each other a bit better.”

Armstrong’s greatest assets are his tenacity and skating ability.

“When he’s using his speed like he has the last bit here, it’s a momentum changer,” said Konowalchuk. “It pushes the pace, it changes the momentum, it puts the other team on their heels. He’ll get scoring chances and keep chipping in with goals if he uses his speed.

“When he’s going, I would probably put him in the top half dozen skaters in the league with his pure speed.”

Notable: The Rebels have hit the 40-win mark for the second-straight season, marking the first time that’s happened for the team since they did it in three-straight seasons from 2000-01 to 2002-03 . . . For Friday’s game against the Broncos the Rebels will be wearing limited edition St. Patrick’s Day jerseys. The jerseys will be auctioned off during the game with proceeds going to the Rebels Foundation for Education and Wellness . . . Twice this season, the Rebels have scored five power play goals in a game: January 20 at home vs. Prince George (8-5 Rebels win) and Saturday in Calgary. The only other WHL team to score five power play goals in a game this season was the Tri-City Americans versus Swift Current on February 1 . . . Season ticket members can now confirm their tickets for the 2023 WHL playoffs. General public ticket sales for Rebels home playoff home games open Wednesday.

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