Rebels set to take on fast, disciplined Blades in conference semifinal
The Calgary Hitmen, despite going down in five games, were worthy opponents of the Red Deer Rebels in the opening round of the WHL playoffs.
The Saskatoon Blades are next up for Red Deer and will present a new and different challenge to the Rebels, who concluded their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal in a thrilling manner Friday with a 6-5 overtime victory at the Peavey Mart Centrium.
The Blades needed seven games to dispose of Connor Bedard and the Regina Pats and will host the Rebels in the first two games of their best-of-seven conference semifinal Friday and Sunday.
“They’re a good team, they’re skilled and they’re fast,” Rebels captain Jayden Grubbe said Tuesday. “Those are their biggest strengths so we have to be ready. We do know how they play.”
Rebels head coach Steve Konowalchuk also sees the Blades as a speedy squad, but also one that embraces discipline.
“They’re a fast team and a team that doesn’t take a lot of penalties,” said the Rebels bench boss. “They move the puck well, have good skill, good depth and good goaltending.
“They’re a solid team. They had a lot of points (101 to the Rebels’ 92) in the regular season for a reason.”
While the Blades no longer have to deal with or be worried about Bedard, they will face a different type of team in the Rebels, whom they defeated in three of four regular season meetings, including once in overtime.
The Rebels play a dump-and-chase pressure game, with big bodies like Grubbe, Kai Uchacz, Ben King and Jace Isley (pictured below) and smaller — or at least slighter — but intense forwards Kalan Lind, Jhett Larson, Craig Armstrong and Frantisek Formanek going hard on the forecheck and creating havoc and turnovers in the O-zone.
“We have an identity we want to play to,” said Konowalchuk. “We want to play a fast game, a hard game . . . hard on pucks and physical. That’s our identity.”
That being said . . .
“There are things we still want to get better at as we get going here.”
Added Grubbe: “We just try and worry about our style and how we play . . . just control what we can and I think playing our style will work well.”
Grubbe led the club in scoring through the first series with a goal and nine assists — including five helpers in Game 5 which earned him Canadian Hockey League first star of the night honours — while fellow veterans Uchacz (4-3-7), King (3-4-7) were next, along with standout defenceman Mats Lindgren (2-5-7).
For obvious reasons, the veterans have to continue their strong play.
“Just kind of continue on. It’s one series and now we’re moving on to the next series, the next game,” said Grubbe.
“It’s that kind of mentality — just worry about the next game and not look too far ahead. Everyone is on the same page with that.”
While the Blades finished one spot ahead of the Rebels in the conference final standings, Grubbe doesn’t see his club as an underdog entering the series.
“I wouldn’t say so. The standings were pretty close. It’s two good teams so I think it will be a tight series, like most are in the playoffs,” he stated.
“It’s also exciting playing a team like that. They’re a good team, we’re a good team. It will be fun.”
The second and third games will be played at the Peavey Mart Centrium next Tuesday and Wednesday.
Starting the series on the road and faced with the prospect of playing four games in Saskatoon if the series goes the limit is not necessarily a disadvantage, Grubbe noted.
“I don’t think it really matters,” he said. “We were good on the road last series. Just go out there and play. It doesn’t really matter.
“Obviously the crowd here has been pretty awesome so when we do get back here it will be fun.”
Notable: During the regular season, the Blades were led offensively by forwards Trevor Wong (27-59-86), Egor Sidorov (40-36-76) and Brandon Lisowsky (38-32-70), and defenceman and captain Aidan De La Gorgendiere (12-53-65). Sidorov (5-5) and Wong (3-7) each had 10 points in the series vs. Regina while De La Gorgendiere picked up seven assists . . . Blades goaltender Ethan Chadwick appeared in five quarterfinal games and posted a goals-against average of 3.23 and a save percentage of .847. Rebels netminder Kyle Kelsey went the distance against the Hitmen, recording a GAA of 1.87 and save percentage of .938 . . . The Blades and Rebels posted similar special teams numbers during the regular season, with Saskatoon third overall on the power play (82.5 per cent) and the Rebels fifth at 81 per cent. The Blades were fourth in penalty killing (27.6 per cent) and the Rebels sixth (27.1) . . . Fifth to seventh games, if required, will go April 21 in Saskatoon, April 23 at the Peavey Mart Centrium and two days later at the SaskTel Centre.