Rebels open new year with hard-fought win over host Hitmen
Rebels 5 Hitmen 3
CALGARY — The Red Deer Rebels opened 2023 in the same fashion they closed out 2022 — with a victory.
But unlike Friday’s 6-2 victory over the host Edmonton Oil Kings, Sunday’s 5-3 Western Hockey League conquest of the Calgary Hitmen was a genuine battle.
The Rebels squandered leads of 2-0 and 3-2 before getting the winning goal from rookie Ollie Josephson — his third of the season — with 3:36 remaining and an empty-netter off the stick of Kai Uchacz.
Uchacz completed his second consecutive hat trick and third inside of a week with the clinching marker, his league-leading 33rd of the season.
“We found a way to win, that’s the bottom line,” said Rebels head coach Steve Konowalchuk.
The Rebels owned their hosts in the opening frame, spending most of the period in the Calgary end with an aggressive forecheck.
Jace Isley opened the scoring a mere 1:24 in, knocking down a loose puck off the side boards, skating down low and directing a shot off the post and past netminder Ethan Buenaventura.
Red Deer’s pressure paid off again in the final minute of the period as Uchacz spun and fired from the edge of the left circle with a crowd in front during four-on-four play.
“For it being an early afternoon game, the guys came ready to play. It was a real good first period,” said Konowalchuk.
The Hitmen, however, reversed course in the middle stanza and carried the play to the Rebels, getting goals from Brandon Whynott, on a deflection from the edge of the crease, and London Hoilett — from a scramble — to pull even.
“The other team has some good players, but we took our foot off the gas in the second period. And that’s what happens — the other team gets back in it,” said Konowalchuk.
Uchacz restored the Rebels’ lead late in the period, beating Buenaventura through the pads from the high slot, but Oliver Tulk made it a 3-3 game shortly after following defensive gaffs inside the Red Deer blueline.
The Hitmen applied pressure in the third period but the play of Rebels goaltender Rhett Stoesser kept them off the scoresheet.
Stoesser denied the Hitmen on at least four high-grade scoring opportunities in the period, giving the visitors an opportunity to pull it out late.
Craig Armstrong was the architect on the winning goal, pouncing on a loose puck outside the Calgary blueline, skating down the left wall and feeding Josephson in the low slot.
“The third was a bit of a mixed review on both teams,” said Konowalchuk. “We did some good things and made a couple of mistakes and Calgary was the same.
“We’ve played a lot of hockey since the break with not much time in between games. But we found a way. It was a good win.”
Stoesser was somehow ignored during the three star selections despite making 34 saves.
“He was good. What can you say, he’s making the saves and that’s all you can ask,” said Konowalchuk.
Notable: This was just the second New Year’s Day game in Rebels history, the last was in 2011 . . . Attendance at the Scotiabank Saddledome was 4,828 . . . Buenaventura stopped 24 shots . . . The Rebels were zero-for-one on the power play while the Hitmen were zero-for-three . . . The three stars: (1) Uchacz, (2) Hoilett and (2) Josephson . . . Isley had an assist to go with his goal . . . The Rebels improved to 26-6-1-3 and moved into a first-place tie in the Eastern Conference with the Winnipeg Ice, who have played three fewer games. Red Deer is 13 points clear of Lethbridge atop the Central Division . . . The Rebels return to action with road games next Friday and Saturday against the Prince Albert Raiders and Saskatoon Blades. Red Deer’s next home game is Jan. 11 when the Moose Jaw Warriors visit the Peavey Mart Centrium.