Ryan Vandervlis grew up watching the Red Deer Rebels. Tuesday night, he buried them as a member of the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
The 18-year-old product of Red Deer was lights out, etching a four-point performance to lead the Lethbridge Hurricanes to a convincing 6-2 win over the Rebels in Game 7 of their first-round WHL Playoffs series.
“Playing at the Centrium [in Red Deer], it was nice to get that goal in Game 6 – I had never scored in my hometown,” Vandervlis said Tuesday night in Lethbridge. “That was pretty cool. But I’ve got bragging rights now for the summer.
“Being down 3-1 makes it even sweeter [to win]… We’ve got to give Red Deer credit, they came hard. We stayed composed but didn’t get out of our heads. We approached it one game at a time.”
The victory completed a miraculous comeback, as the Hurricanes erased a 3-1 series deficit to stun the Rebels and advance to the second round of the WHL Playoffs.
“I’m very proud of the guys,” said Brent Kisio, head coach of the Hurricanes, following Tuesday’s Game 7 victory. “They worked real hard. We were in a tough spot and we had a decision to make if we wanted to work hard and find a way back into this [series].
“A lot of our top players really stepped up and everyone else did as well. It was a team effort.”
The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Vandervlis brought it early, often and in every facet of the game – but not before getting himself into a little bit of trouble.
With a 2-0 lead on the board and time winding down in the first period, Vandervlis was tagged for elbowing. The Rebels didn’t muster much on the ensuing advantage and soon enough, the power forward emerged from the penalty box to scoop up a loose puck at centre ice without a soul in sight.
Skating in alone on Rebels goaltender Riley Lamb, Vandervlis opted for the backhand deke, only to meet the outstretched leg and mitt of the Red Deer puckstopper.
It remained 2-0.
Moments later, a turnover deep in Lethbridge territory landed on the stick of perhaps one of the most dangerous men on the ice – Lane Zablocki. Parked right in the high slot, the Rebels’ sniper made no mistake, sending the puck quickly past goaltender Stuart Skinner to get the Rebels on the board with 52 seconds to go in the first period.
It was now 2-1 and oh how large that missed opportunity by Vandervlis suddenly was.
On the next shift, the spark plug was back out on the ice.
If there was any question as to who was going to carry the momentum heading into the dressing room, Vandervlis took care of that answer. Only 22 seconds after Zablocki’s marker, the veteran Hurricane snuck down low to the left post and found a loose puck trickling through the crease – a gift – with Lamb down and out.
The lid blew off the Enmax Centre as Vandervlis restored the two-goal lead and earned a little redemption for himself heading into the first intermission.
“I thought he was an absolute stud tonight,” Kisio said of Vandervlis. “He stepped up and played some big minutes for us, scored some goals. He’s one of those guys you need in playoffs – a little bit unsung coming into the playoffs and been absolutely amazing for us.”
As the second period got underway, Igor Merezhko found his stick tangled in the feet of Brandon Hagel, providing the Rebels with a power-play opportunity and a chance to pull back within striking distance once again.
What happened next was not in the Rebels’ plans.
Vandervlis grabbed a loose puck in Lethbridge territory and burst down the right wing on a partial two-on-one with Jordy Bellerive. Without much room to work with, Vandervlis sent a soft, backhand saucer towards the slot where Bellerive managed to get just enough on the rubber to redirect it under Lamb’s arm. The short-handed effort gave the Hurricanes a commanding 4-1 lead with 11:31 to go in the second period.
Rather than pull closer, the Rebels found themselves one step back 1:21 into what was supposed to be a power-play opportunity.
One can’t draw up a bigger backbreaker than that.
“It started with penalties in the first period – we get down one man, then all of a sudden we take a second one and their power play takes over,” said Jeff Truitt, associate coach for the Rebels, following Tuesday’s Game 7 loss. “We’re chasing the game right from then on. That was the start of it. Our discipline wasn’t good enough tonight against a very good team that has a very good power play.”
That spelled the end of the night for the rookie Lamb, as he surrendered four goals on 19 shots, and veteran Lasse Petersen entered the blue paint for the Rebels.
No one would have blamed the Rebels if they had folded the tent, trailing 4-1 more than halfway through Game 7, but they continued to scrape and claw for whatever they could find. Adam Musil continued to be a nuisance in front of the net, causing all kinds of trouble for Skinner, but the big netminder remained calm and continued to smother pucks with ease.
Red Deer managed to send 19 shots in on Skinner during the second period of play, each of which he had an answer for and the two teams headed to the second intermission with a 4-1 spread on the scoreboard.
Hagel brought a bit of quiet over the Enmax Centre crowd early in the third period as he found the back of the net to make it a 4-2 game. But then the Rebels got themselves into penalty trouble and the Hurricanes ran away with things.
Michael Spacek did break in alone for a glorious opportunity to execute while short-handed but once again Skinner was there to shut it down.
On the next power-play opportunity, Vandervlis buried the dagger – his second goal of the game and fourth of the post-season. All this from a kid who scored eight goals through 60 regular season appearances. Suddenly, he has four in seven post-season contests.
Talk about coming to play when all the chips are down.
Brennan Menell scored his second goal of the game on another power-play opportunity in the third period to round out the scoring as the Hurricanes converted on four of their six man advantages Tuesday night.
Mix in Bellerive’s short-handed goal and that’s five strikes on special teams.
“[Penalty killing] is all heart,” said Tyler Wong, captain of the Hurricanes, Tuesday night. “You’ve got to put your face in front of pucks, you’ve got to block shots, you’ve got to take a hit to get the puck down the ice and that’s what it took tonight.
“Obviously Vandy [Vandervlis] had an unbelievable game. The guy is stepping up. He’s been unbelievable the last few games and to be able to carry that one in and find Belly [Bellerive] on the backhand play… That’s a big play for us to get that shorty. It might be the turning point of the game.”
With all that said, it wasn’t solely about Vandervlis Tuesday night in Lethbridge and fans at the Enmax Centre couldn’t have asked for a better start to Game 7.
Menell’s first of the night came only 16 seconds into his team’s first 5-on-3 power-play opportunity at the 7:21 mark of the first period. Off the faceoff, the veteran defenceman sent a long blast from the point that found its way through a maze to give the Hurricanes a 1-0 lead and the roof exploded off the sold-out Enmax Centre.
If that wasn’t good enough, Giorgio Estephan boosted the crowd’s energy only 1:03 later.
With a power play still on the board, Estephan took a pass in the right face-off circle and sent a hot wrist shot to the top corner as the Hurricanes took a 2-0 lead before the game was nine minutes old.
That start, combined with the outstanding performance of the unsung hero Vandervlis, the sold-out crowd of 5,244 was provided with plenty of moments to cheer about in what will certainly go down as one of the more memorable Game 7s in Lethbridge Hurricanes history.
“This is the loudest I’ve heard [the Enmax Centre],” Kisio said. “It was absolutely rocking. Talking to some of the guys walking out before the game, it was giving them chills. We could hear it underneath. These fans are crazy here and it gave us a boost.”
Vandervlis finished with two goals and two assists, while Menell stacked up two goals and an assist. Estephan (1G-2A), Wong (2A), Bellerive (1G-1A) and Zak Zborosky (2A) all contributed in big ways.
Skinner finished the night with 31 saves to claim his fourth win of the post-season.
The Lethbridge victory sets the stage for a Highway 3 rivalry matchup in the second round of the 2017 WHL Playoffs as the Hurricanes will meet the Medicine Hat Tigers beginning Friday night at the Canalta Centre.