The Red Deer Rebels set out on a two-game road trip Thursday and they departed with momentum on their side.
The Rebels will take a five-game winning streak into Friday’s meeting with the Saskatoon Blades, but captain Reese Johnson stressed that while there’s a positive mood among the players, there’s no feeling of fulfilment.
“I think there’s definitely a good feeling around the room, but it’s in a situation like this that you can’t take your foot off the pedal,” said the 20-year-old centre. “You just have to keep building and keep on the uprise.”
The Rebels downed the Blades 5-4 Oct. 2 at the Centrium and then posted a 4-3 win over the visiting Prince Albert Raiders — Red Deer’s opponent Saturday — last weekend. Both the Blades and Raiders are considered to be among the top teams in the East Division and perhaps the entire league.
Without question, both clubs will be seeking revenge in their own rinks.
“Saskatoon and Prince Albert are definitely two really good teams and we’ll have to be prepared for both games,” said Johnson. “We’ll focus on the first one obviously, but each game on this road trip we’ll have to compete and outwork our opponents.
“It’s nice to know we can beat those top teams, but we want to be a top team in the league too. We just have to be prepared and ready to go.”
Special teams have been a big plus for the 5-2-0-0 Rebels to this point in the season.
Last season, Red Deer’s power play finished 19th overall with a success rate of 18.7 per cent. The penalty kill, meanwhile, improved over the final few months and finished 11th at 77.9 per cent.
This fall, the Rebels’ power play is clicking at 30.8 per cent, third best in the league, and the team’s penalty kill units are operating at an 82.8 per cent success rate, eighth overall.
“Our special teams have been really good and that’s what you need to win games. Our special teams have been huge,” said Johnson.
“I think the key to the success we’ve been having on them is just keeping it simple and not trying to over-complicate things. Sometimes you do that with special teams, especially the power play . . . sometimes you try to make too many passes. But that first unit has been really good for us and our penalty kill just has to keep getting better as well.”
The popular theory is that a team’s best penalty killer is its goaltender, and Ethan Anders has risen to the occasion on a regular basis.
Anders sports a 4-2-0-record with a 3.53 goals-against average and a nifty .914 save percentage. Several of his saves have been of the spectacular variety, and last Saturday’s win over Prince Albert was a good example of his stellar play as the 18-year-old turned aside 49 of 52 shots.
Rookie Byron Fancy has appeared in just one game, but was impressive while making 24 saves in a 5-2 win Sept. 29 over visiting Swift Current.
“Andy has been great,” said Johnson. “He’s a great goalie and the same with Fancy — he’s going to be a really good goalie in the league.
“It’s good to see Andy be successful. He’s a great guy, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, a good down-to-earth guy. He’s from Saskatchewan too so you wouldn’t expect anything else.”
Both Anders, who hails from Regina, and Saskatoon native Johnson were en route to their home province Thursday.
Johnson, who joined the Rebels late in the 2014-15 season then ran into injury problems that caused him to miss half of the following season and all of the ’16-17 campaign, never gets tired of playing in his hometown.
“It’s always good,” said Johnson, who was finally healthy last season and scored 23 goals while appearing in all 72 games. “I always have my family and buddies from high school and cousins who drive up from Regina come out.
“It’s always a good time playing in front of them. We only go there a couple times a year but it’s always special.”
Notable: Defenceman Carson Sass remains sidelined with an upper body injury suffered Sept. 30 in Calgary and didn’t make the trip. He’s out on a day-to-day basis. Forward Austin Schellenberg is also out with an injury. He’s listed as day to day and remained in Red Deer to skate with Sass . . . Brandon Hagel, who sits sixth in league scoring with 14 points (4g,10a), will appear in his 200th WHL game Friday . . . Brent Sutter is closing in on 900 WHL regular season games. Friday’s contest will be No. 889 for the Rebels GM/head coach . . . Alex Alexeyev (3-6-9) and Dawson Barteaux (1-7-8) are third and seventh in scoring among WHL defencemen . . . Rebels forward Oleg Zaytsev is listed as a ‘B’ prospect for next year’s NHL entry draft and Anders as a ‘C’ prospect by Central Scouting on the service’s ‘players to watch’ list for October . . . Red Deer’s next home game is Oct. 20 versus the Kootenay Ice, one night after an engagement with the Oil Kings in Edmonton.