The Red Deer Rebels are going to the WHL Playoffs.
Following a stretch that spanned three months where the Rebels won just one of 25 games, no one could be blamed for writing off the season. With a week to go in January, the Rebels were 12 points back of a playoff spot.
Something clearly happened with the team because in 23 games starting Jan. 23, Red Deer has rattled off 16 wins, including a 5-2 victory Saturday night against the Central Division leading Medicine Hat Tigers.
"To accomplish what we’ve accomplished says a lot about the kids in the room," said Head Coach Brent Sutter post-game. "They've stayed with it and really started believing as a group that we can have success if we play the right way. We’ve had a pretty good run here."
The two teams, who have both been hot of late, put on an up-tempo first period. Just under four minutes in, Red Deer's Grayson Pawlenchuk was sent off for delay of game. The Tigers would capitalize to take a 1-0 lead, Kristians Rubins notching his 7th of the season.
Just 28 seconds later, Red Deer returned the favour as Brandon Hagel potted his 15th.
Medicine Hat would fail to capitalize on a pair of additional powerplays before finally getting a call against with 10 seconds remaining in the first period.
With Kristians Rubins off for interference to start the second, Red Deer had a chance to steal the momentum. However, it was Medicine Hat who killed off the penalty and took the lead at 3:42 of the frame. Bryan Lockner rang one off the post and in to earn his 13th of the year to make it 2-1 Medicine Hat.
Medicine Hat controlled the rest of the period, racking up 14 shots to Red Deer's six, but couldn't put any more rubber past Ethan Anders.
In the third, it was all Rebels. Kristian Reichel scored early to tie the game at two goals apiece, that his 31st of the night.
Following another Grayson Pawlenchuk delay of game call which Red Deer killed off, David Quenneville was dinged for hooking.
Brandon Hagel pounced to score his second of the night and 16th of the season to put Red Deer up 3-2 and just a few minutes away from a playoff berth.
Quenneville would again be penalized just moments later for slashing and Red Deer made the Tigers pay once again. Kristian Reichel scored his second of the period and 32nd goal of the year to give the Rebels some insurance.
Seconds later, Hagel capped off his hat trick as the Rebels won going away by a final score of 5-2.
"We had some moments in the second that we weren't as assertive as we would have liked to have been, but the kids just kept going. They didn’t get down and we talked after the second period about getting back to being a good team," Sutter continued.
"We've talked about the best players being your best players, and we’ve been harping about it all year long, but it's so true. I don’t care what level you're at, you're best players have to be your best players."
Reichel (***), Rebels goaltender Ethan Anders (** - 34 saves) and Hagel (*) were named the Booster Juice three stars of the game.
With the loss by Medicine Hat and a loss by Lethbridge as well on Saturday night, the Central Division is yet to be clinched by the Tigers. However, they can do so with a single point or a Hurricanes loss. In that case, Red Deer would face Lethbridge in the first round.
Next action for the Red Deer Rebels is Wednesday at home against Lethbridge. The broadcast begins at 6:30 on 106.7 The Drive.
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