Thursday, April 4, 2013

Rebels and Hitmen Renew Rivalry

It just seems wrong that the Red Deer Rebels and Calgary Hitmen have gone nearly a full decade without meeting in the playoffs. (not nearly as bad as the Oilers / Flames playoff drought, but still…)

During the Rebels “glory days” a yearly postseason date with the Hitmen was pretty much set in stone. In the six seasons between 1999 and 2004 they met in the playoffs four times…

1999 – Hitmen swept the Rebels 4-0 in the second round on their way to winning the WHL Championship
2001 – Rebels beat the Hitmen four games to two in second round in their way to winning the Memorial Cup
2003 – Rebels beat the Hitmen four games to one in the opening round on their way to winning the Eastern Conference
2004 – Rebels beat the Hitmen four games to three in the opening round

Of course, much has changed with these two franchises since those playoff series. The only real carryover from then to now is that Brent Sutter is the man behind the Rebels bench… albeit after a five year NHL hiatus.

Logistically, what more could fans of either team ask for? With the two rinks being less than two hours apart, you can be darn sure there will be dozens of fans logging plenty of time on the QE2 Highway to take in all four (plus) games of the series. Heck, even yours truly will be making the trek to the Saddledome for games one and two (hijacking Mooner’s broadcast to provide some colour commentary in the process).

In breaking down this series… one has to think that the key matchup will between the Rebels defenders and Hitmen forwards… and the Rebels need not look far when it comes to who they have to shut down first and foremost.

Cody Sylvester was a stone cold “Rebels killer” during the regular season, piling up 9 points in 6 games. Seemingly every time Calgary needed a big play against the Rebels it Sylvester coming through for them. He’s off to a solid start in the playoffs as well with five points in five games. If the Rebels have any hope of winning this series, they absolutely must limit the amount of damage Sylvester inflicts.

Victor Rask is a player the Hitmen weren’t necessarily planning on having this season but boy were they glad to get him. After starting the season in the AHL with the Carolina Checkers, Rask returned to Calgary and posted 41 points in 37 games. Rask led the Hitmen in playoff scoring versus the Broncos with 7 points in 5 games. If the Rebels don’t find a way to contain Victor it will be “at their own Rask.”

Brooks Macek (80 regular season points) and Brady Brassart (78) add even more impressive fire power to the Hitmen scoring attack.

One player who no doubt wants to have a big series for the Hitmen is Colten Mayor. It’s been quite an eventful season for the St. Albert native, being traded twice will do that, but he has settled in quite nicely in Calgary. The former Rebel started Calgary’s first round series versus Swift Current playing on the fourth line but was quickly bumped up into their top thanks to some solid play.

“I just don’t want to think about it too much,” Mayor told when asked about playing against his former team in the playoffs. “I’m not going to put too much pressure on me to change anything, I just want to play my game and pretend it’s like any other game.”

If there is an area where the Rebels appear to have a definitive edge it is special teams. The penalty killing, as we have come to expect, was splendid against Prince Albert in round one. 18/19 is pretty darn impressive no matter how you look at it (Edmonton was 21/21 versus Kootenay, Kelowna is 24/24 so far versus Seattle). Granted, the Raiders had one of the WHL’s worst powerplay units in the regular season. But they do have enough talent to step up and score timely goals at any given time. The Rebels pk is fully deserving of the kudos they receive.

That being said… the Hitmen are not the Raiders. The hired guns I talked about earlier are not a group to be taken likely at the best of times. Handing them powerplay chances is not exactly recommended. And while their play on the man advantage hasn’t been particularly exceptional, Calgary’s powerplay was ranked 12th in the regular season and was just 2/13 versus Swift Current, the odds of the Rebels killing 7 out of 7 penalties like they did in game one versus PA aren’t that great. You don’t want to play with fire against this Hitmen team.

For the Rebels, the keys to success are painfully obvious. Patrik Bartosak needs to continue with his stellar play between the pipes. Turner Elson needs to continue playing his best hockey as a Rebel (can’t seem to remember playing better in Red Deer silks at any point). Rhyse Dieno needs to continue being the spark plug for the Rebels scoring attack. Secondary scoring would be a help, as it was when the likes of Cody Thiel were chipping in with goals versus the Raiders. And, the Rebels blueliners need to be steady, not spectacular, just steady. The Hitmen are big, so the Rebels need to be ready for a series of hard hitting games and I’m sure they will.

However this series turns out in the end it’s gonna be a lot of fun to watch.

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