Rebels playoff battle tested after tough opening series with Wheat Kings
The Brandon Wheat Kings can take solace in the fact they helped the Red Deer Rebels prepare for an even tougher opponent in the WHL playoffs.
After disposing of the Wheat Kings in a six-game Eastern Conference quarter-final, the Rebels now turn their attention to the Edmonton Oil Kings, the No. 3 ranked team in the entire CHL, a team that finished first in the Central Division during the regular season, 10 points ahead of Red Deer.
The best-of-seven series opens Thursday in the provincial capital. Game 2 is Saturday in Edmonton with Games 3 and 4 next Monday and Wednesday at the Peavey Mart Centrium.
“That was one of the hardest fought battles in the whole league,” Rebels sniper Ben King (pictured above) said Wednesday, referring to his team’s physical post-season scrum with the Wheat Kings, a series that ended with Sunday’s 5-4 triple-overtime win.
“It might help us going into Edmonton. It’s going to be another hard fought series. They’re a good team with a lot of good players.”
King, the WHL’s top sniper with 52 regular season goals, appeared in his first WHL playoff series against Brandon.
As a 15-year-old, he was a passenger and spectator during the Swift Current Broncos’ journey to the league championship in 2018.
With six post-seasons outings now under his belt, King has a better understanding of what it takes to win at this crucial point of the year.
“Mistakes are going to be made but you have to limit those as much as you can in each game,” he said. “Just being in that first round helped me, just being around the intensity and understanding how you need to play every shift . . . just giving it my all and my compete every shift and playing for a seven-game series really paid off in the end.
“It was a good experience in a hard fought series. They played us well, we played well . . . it was a good series all around.”
It was at the end of the series that King and linemate Arshdeep Bains, who captured the 2021-22 WHL scoring title and Bob Clarke Trophy with a 112-point regular season, really came through.
King fired three goals in Game 6 and added an assist and Bains tallied once and recorded three helpers. Jhett Larson, the third member of the line, picked up a pair of assists.
“The chances were there all series. In the last game they just kind of found a way into the back of the net,” said King, who finished second in league scoring with 105 points. “That was a relief. We just wanted to contribute and help the team win and in the last game we did that.”
Rebels head coach Steve Konowalchuk knows how important it was for his top two forwards to contribute when it came down to crunch time.
“Your top guys need to be better than the other team’s top guys,” said Konowalchuk following the decisive sixth game. “What can you say about Bains and King in a huge game? You have to tip your hat to them.”
King and Bains were each limited to four points in the first five games versus Brandon, and now have eight points apiece (4-4 for King and 3-5 for Bains) in the playoffs.
King insisted the Rebels must take their usual aggressive mindset into the series with Edmonton.
“We want to play our game like we did all year,” he noted. “We matched up well against them (5-5 record during the regular season) so we just have to bring our game against Edmonton and play their top guys hard.”
Former Oil King Liam Keeler (pictured below) expects another war as the conference semifinal approaches.
“It’s going to be a great series,” he predicted. “It’s two really good teams going at it and obviously Edmonton has a lot of pressure on them being a top team.
“We kind of have that underdog mentality. We’re coming to play our best game and show them what we can do and we’re really excited for the opportunity.”
The 21-year-old forward, acquired from Edmonton in May of last year, might even have a scouting report or two on his former team to offer the Rebels coaching staff.
“Obviously I played with a lot of those guys. I know them really well, they’re a lot of really good friends of mine,” said Keeler.
“Maybe I know a few things about them that I can give to our staff. But I think it just comes down to going out there and playing. It’s two really good teams and it’s going to be a great series.”
Keeler, who recorded a career-best 25 goals and 45 points during the regular season and has a goal and assist in the playoffs, agreed with King that the Wheat Kings brought out the best in the Rebels.
“Brandon was a really strong team,” he said. “They played us really hard and we had to earn every single win that we got. There wasn’t one game that we didn’t see their best.
“That was a big learning curve for us. Obviously we liked the way we played in some games and some games maybe we could have played a bit better. But that experience is going to be really vital for us going into this series.
“I think we’ve played every style. We’ve been down, we’ve been up, we’ve been in triple overtime too. All that experience is really going to help us.”