It was billed as a hugely important game, and naturally Friday's tilt between the Red Deer Rebels and Brandon Wheat Kings came right down to the wire, Red Deer ultimately pulling out the 5-3 victory.
Going in, both teams were tied for the second Eastern Conference wild card playoff spot with 68 points, though Red Deer held the advantage due to playing one fewer game.
This season, the teams had met three previous times, splitting two meetings in Brandon, and the Wheat Kings most recently shutting out the Rebels 4-0 in Red Deer on Jan. 30.
Brandon got on the board first and early at the 3:48 mark, Ben McCartney potting his 20th of the season just as his team's powerplay had expired.
In the 2nd, the Wheat Kings took control early once again, first killing off a 1:07 long Rebels powerplay.
Stelio Mattheos was first to dig the hole deeper for Red Deer scoring his 42nd of the season just 1:36 into the frame.
Then, just 1:04 later, Chad Nychuk netted his 2nd of the year, and all of a sudden, it was a 3-0 lead for the visitors.
With a sigh of relief, the Rebels finally got on the board at 9:03 of the 2nd, Brandon Hagel scoring his 39th. The goal was also Hagel's 101st of his WHL career, which is 4th on the Rebels all-time list.
The goal was nearly disallowed, however, after a whistle had gone almost simultaneously with the goal being scored for incidental penalties.
It wasn't until 10:45 of the 3rd period that scoring resumed, with Cameron Hausinger scoring his 18th to draw the Rebels to within one.
1:45 later, it was a tie game as Josh Tarzwell went high shortside past Patera for his 9th.
A scary scene then rendered the Centrium silent as Rebels star defenseman and 2018 NHL 1st rounder Alexander Alexeyev was felled by a knee on knee hit. The Russian stayed down and immobile for several minutes, and was eventually taken off the ice on a stretcher.
There was no penalty called on the play, and Head Coach Brent Sutter said after the game that more on his status wouldn't likely be known for 48-72 hours.
Moments later, Red Deer scored its fourth straight goal to take its first lead of the game. It was Zak Smith getting his 11th from Oleg Zaytsev, which eventually stood up as the game-winner.
Zaytsev buried an empty netter with nine seconds left to ice it.
Friday night was the third time in the Rebels' last five games that they've scored five or more goals. Ethan Anders stopped 17 of 20 for his 27th win of the season. He has played in the third most games of any WHL goaltender at 53.
"I thought we played kind of passive for a good part of the game. We were on our heels too much," said Sutter. "Then we got going, we got some urgency in our game in the third, and we capitalized. I just didn’t think we had enough guys going for the first two periods, but we came back and that’s what we needed."
Smith, he of the game-winning goal, was on board with his coach's assessment.
"The first two periods, we were just over-complicating things, and in the third, we just got simple, we got pucks deep and outworked them," the Austin, MB native said. "Seeing Alex go down and knowing what he's been through, it just drove the players to finish the game off for him."
With the win and a regulation loss on Friday by Medicine Hat, Red Deer takes over the first wild card spot by virtue of having a game in hand on Medicine Hat. Both teams have 70 points.
Brandon is two points back and play the Tigers on Saturday. Red Deer and Med Hat will play on Wednesday the 13th in what should be a dandy.
Next up for the Rebels is a divisional tilt against the Kootenay Ice on Saturday from the Centrium. The broadcast gets going at 6:30 with puck drop at 7 LIVE on 106.7 The Drive.
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