BY ZACHARY CORMIER
Hello ladies and gentlemen and welcome to part two of my ongoing struggle to avoid thinking about or paying attention toCanada’s terrible NHL teams.
With just five games remaining in the regular season (thank God), every single Canadian hockey team is currently in full-ontanking mode as they attempt to get as low in the standings as possible in an effort to land the first overall pick for the2016 NHL Entry Draft.
While that is, objectively, a good thing for the future of these organizations, it makes for some pretty darn terrible to watchhockey. In lieu of this, I would like to offer up an alternative to the pain and suffering of sitting through a Flames or Oilersgame just to get your hockey fix.
I speak, of course, about Major Junior hockey. More specifically, Central Alberta’s own Red Deer Rebels, who are currentlyembroiled in a heated first-round Western Hockey League playoff battle against the Calgary Hitmen, in which they currentlyhold a very slim 2-1 lead.
Before I begin, let me just say that the first three games of this series have been, in a word, excellent. This is one of themost bitter rivalries in the WHL, in a way comparable to the old battles of Alberta back before the Flames became one of themost underachieving teams in the league and the Oilers took out a long-term lease on 30th place in the standings.
Like those iconic playoff series between the Flames and Oilers in the ’80s, this matchup has been a very physical and chippyaffair that has been an absolute joy to watch.
You’ve got two teams from the same province who play in the same division and who were separated by just five points inthe league standings. It’s a match made in hockey fan heaven.
The Rebels knew they would be in for a long series when they drew Calgary in the first round.
“I expect it to be a tough series. I expect Calgary to play the way Calgary plays. They’ve played us hard all year. It’s going tobe a tough series, it’ll be a long, hard-fought series,” Rebels’ Head Coach and General Manager Brent Sutter said after histeam’s final home game of the season back on March 19th.
Ten days and three games later, he has been proven to be very, very right.
Not counting empty-net goals, not a single one of last weekend’s games was won by more than a two goal margin. On topof that, two of them (games one and three) have been decided by game winning goals in the final 10 minutes of the thirdperiod, so there isn’t much separating the two clubs.
One thing that this series has shown in my opinion, is just how important scoring depth is, and just how good Sutter’s pickups at the trade deadline were this year.
Of Red Deer’s nine goals this series, five were scored by two players who were picked up at the deadline in Adam Helewkaand Jake DeBrusk, three were scored by Adam Polei and the one remaining goal was potted by Jeff de Wit.
Now you might be thinking how do they have scoring depth when all of their goals were scored by a combination of fourplayers?
Of those four players, only DeBrusk and Helewka scored more than 20 goals during the regular season this year. Polei cameclose with 16, tying his career high from last year, while de Wit scored just seven.
Both Polei and de Wit are mainly second or third line guys and racked up a combined 98 minutes in penalties this year.
With regular season scoring leader Ivan Nikolishin out week to week with a lower body injury and former captain ConnorBleackley out with a sliced tendon that ended his season, getting scoring from those second and third line players will bekey to the Rebels’ success in this year’s playoffs.
The 2016 Memorial Cup hosts have also shown quite a bit of depth in other positions when dealing with injuries.Specifically in net.
When starting goalie Rylan Toth suffered a long-term injury with just 14 games left in the regular season, it fell to backupnetminder Trevor Martin to fill his shoes.
And boy has the 18-year-old from Androssan, Alberta delivered, posting a .913 save percentage and 2.69 goals againstaverage in this year’s playoffs.
If Martin can continue to play the way he has and the team as a whole can continue scoring, I can see the Rebs heading offto the second round in six.
The Rebels next home game will be Game 5, which will take place on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the ENMAX Centrium in RedDeer. If you’re free on Saturday night, I can’t think of a better way to spend it.