Rebels Oust Brandon; Advance To Semi-Final
Rebels 2 Wheat Kings 1 (OT)
Their berth in the Memorial Cup semifinal already guaranteed, the Red Deer Rebels had no intention of backing into the contest.
So they took care of business in the best way possible Wednesday evening by defeating the Brandon Wheat Kings in overtime before a boisterous gathering of 7,327 at the Enmax Centre.
Conner Bleackley found Evan Polei open at the side of the Brandon net and the big winger buried the cross-crease feed at 3:50 of the extra session, giving the Rebels a 2-1 victory and the No. 2 seed following round-robin play with a 2-1 record.
The Wheat Kings were eliminated after going winless (0-3) in the tournament.
Red Deer will take on the 1-2 Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the semifinal, set for Friday at 6 p.m. The winner will face the 3-0 London Knights in Sunday’s 2:30 p.m. championship contest.
“It was absolutely amazing, a surreal moment,” said Polei of his winner and the roar of the crowd that followed. “The adrenalin was just pumping. I was thinking in the dressing room (during the intermission) what I was going to do if I scored. But as soon as I scored it all went out the window.”
Polei didn’t know if he was going to be fed by Bleackley when his teammate grabbed possession of the puck.
“To be honest I thought he was going to shoot it,” he remarked, with a chuckle. “But it was a great pass.”
Bleackley knew exactly what course of action he was going to take when he spotted Polei.
“I just saw a lefty and that was huge because he was on his one-timer. I knew if I got the puck over to him there was a good chance he’d put it in,” he said. “It was great to see that one go in.”
Following the completion of regulation time, Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter and his players were fully aware that due to the goals-for-and-against formula used to break a tie between three 1-2 teams that they were already in the semifinal. For Red Deer to be relegated to a Thursday tie-breaker versus Brandon, they had to lose by three or more goals Wednesday.
Regardless, they wanted to go in through the front door.
“Our mindset was to win the game tonight. We didn’t want to have a situation for ourselves where we got in (to the semifinal) on a goal differential,” said Sutter.
“I told the kids before the overtime that we know we’re in the semifinal game, but let’s go after this and go get a win. Let’s end this quickly, and we did. We knew Brandon was going to make a push because of their (must-win) situation but I thought we did a great job in overtime and went right after it.”
The Rebels had numerous chances to emerge victorious in regulation time, but fired either high or wide of the Brandon net on at least a half dozen chances from prime scoring space and Brandon goalie Jordan Papirny stopped Grayson Pawlenchuk and Jeff de Wit on breakaways.
Papirny, who turned aside 30 shots overall, had no chance on the winner.
“At the end of the day it came down to one shot. It’s a tough pill to swallow, for sure,” said the Wheat Kings stopper.
He also had no chance on Adam Musil’s tying goal with just over five minutes left in the third period. Musil got his stick on Haydn Fleury’s shot from the high slot, then buried a volley of his own from close range.
“It was a tight-checking game, there wasn’t much room out there. But we kept pushing and found a way to score that tying goal,” said Sutter.
Following a scoreless opening frame, Brandon overage forward Tim McGauley finally connected 11:26 into the scoring period, his shot from the left faceoff circle finding the far top corner of the Rebels net.
Red Deer netminder Rylan Toth closed the door the rest of the way and finished with 33 saves.
Musil’s late third-period marker forced overtime and set the stage for Polei’s winner.
“We played the Red Deer Rebels style and that last goal pretty much summed it up,” said Fleury. “We had great back pressure and it was a good pass by Bleacks and Pols was there to finish it off.”
After being eliminated by the WHL champion Wheat Kings in a five-game Eastern Conference final one month previous, revenge was sweet for Fleury and his teammates.
“It’s huge. For two weeks we were waking up at 6:30 (a.m.) to go work out and coming back at 2 (p.m.) to skate while they (Wheat Kings) were playing in the league finals,” he said. “No one on our team has a short memory and we knew we were going to get a second chance at them and wanted to make the most of it.”
Remarked Toth, who was rock-solid: “It felt awesome. We knew after the third period tonight that we were in the semifinal, but this is a cherry on top to knock them out. It was tough when they knocked us out so this is maybe a little payback.”
Polei took great delight in eliminating the WHL champs.
“You can’t even describe it. We lost in five games to those guys and for them to come into this tournament and lose all three and for us to be the team to send them home is an absolutely great feeling,” he remarked.
Sutter was on board with the revenge scenario, but was also sympathetic towards the Wheat Kings while crediting his own crew.
“I guess part of it is no one has a short memory,” he said. “We know we were beaten in the league semis by Brandon and rightfully so. They have a very good team, but that’s the thing about this tournament — you can come in here and be a champion in your own league, but when some things don’t go exactly right then you can maybe not have success.
“But I’ve said this from the get-go — our team is different now that it was four weeks ago, just with having everybody healthy and having everyone back in the lineup.
“It’s the first time since Game 2 of the regular season that we’ve had our whole lineup because of injuries. The kids felt good, very comfortable, coming into this tournament.”
Brandon GM/head coach Kelly McCrimmon was a gracious loser.
“We had much higher hopes coming into the tournament obviously than how it played out. The three teams that played the best are the three teams that are still playing,” he said.
“Credit to those teams and it will be a great finish to the tournament.”
Still, he had now answers as to why his club failed to win a game after defeating the Edmonton Oil Kings in six games in the first WHL playoff round and then posting three five-game series wins — with the Seattle Thunderbirds being their final victim — the rest of the way.
“Somewhere between Seattle and Red Deer we lost our mojo and we never got going anywhere near the level we had it going in the playoffs,” he said.
“In the four league series that we played I just always had a feeling as a coach that we were not going to be denied, no matter what the circumstance, and we didn’t bring that here.
‘What exactly I’d attribute that to I’m not entirely sure. Maybe we didn’t do a good enough job as coaches in terms of transitioning from one significant event with the league championship to this tournament.
“Lots of things you question and wonder about as you go through it. But yes, it’s disappointing that we’re where we are tonight.”
- Brandon was without the services of foRward Jayce Hawryluk, their top scorer during the regular season, but McCrimmon would not divulge why he was not in the lineup.