Red Deer Rebels (9-14-1-0) at Calgary Hitmen (6-14-3-1)
Wednesday, November 25 – Scotiabank Saddledome 1:30 p.m. (Mountain)
Channels: Sportsnet, Sportsnet Now, WHL Live
Saturday’s battle between the Red Deer Rebels and Calgary Hitmen on Sportsnet’s Saturday Showcase will be first and foremost about the two points up for grabs in the standings.
In what has become a tight race for playoff spots in the Central Division, both clubs with offensively-talented rosters enter play Friday on the outside of the post-season picture and in a firm desire to make themselves a permanent part of the Western Hockey League’s second season.
But another worthy attention-grabber during the Saturday afternoon broadcast will be the presence of the Mastercard Memorial Cup, on a tour across Canada ahead of the 100th edition of the tournament. Saturday’s trip for the iconic trophy to the Scotiabank Saddledome has been in the works for a while, but it seems like a perfect coincidence for the teams that will play in its presence.
Both the Rebels and Hitmen have proud histories of competing for the label of champion. The Rebels won it all in 2001 while the Hitmen came up just short of winning it all in 1999 and 2010. The trophy that was so close to their grasp a generation ago, must feel further away now for the respective rosters that will do battle Saturday, but there’s still hope in the future.
Each club is stacked with offensive pieces to help them in the now and later a matchup that will no doubt produce an entertaining product on the ice Saturday afternoon.
While they’ve played below five-hundred hockey through their first 24 games, the Rebels are 3-3-1-0 against the Central Division this season, including an Oct. 20 4-2 win over the Hitmen, where they jumped out to a 4-0 lead before allowing two goals in the third period.
That game featured a goal by Rebels forward Mason McCarty, who has led his team offensively through the first portion of the season, also recently surpassing the 100-point plateau for his WHL career. But they’ll need production from more than just one player to boost an offence that sits tied for 18th in goals for this season.
The Rebels are a team with an abundance of talent in Buffalo Sabres draft pick Brandon Hagel and Detroit Red Wings prospect Lane Zablocki. Import forward Kristian Reichel is enjoying a productive first season in the WHL with 20 points (10G-10A) while 6-foot-3, 200-pound defenceman Alexander Alexeyev has continued to be a steady hand on the Rebels’ blue line and is already catching interest from scouts and recognized as a ‘Player to Watch’ from NHL Central Scouting.
Rookie Ethan Anders has been logging the majority of the minutes between the pipes, but is still a bit of a question mark. He’s scored victories against strong teams in Spokane and Regina, but has also gone through his share of growing pains. That inconsistency, especially for a rookie, is to be expected. If Anders starts Saturday — the Rebels have to host the league powerhouse Portland Winterhawks Friday night — he could very well rise to the spotlight of the national stage.
Just like the Rebels, the Hitmen have shown flashes of strength this season, but have yet to piece together a consistent stretch long enough to work themselves to the top of the division. With the steady hand of veterans, including captain Matteo Gennaro, Vancouver Canucks prospect Jakob Stukel and Carolina Hurricanes draft pick Jake Bean, the Hitmen are still very much finding their identity this season and where they fit in a competitive Central Division.
That identity includes a number of young players still in the early stages of their WHL careers. Up front, centers Tristen Nielsen (75 games) and Cael Zimmerman (22 games) are finding limited offensive success, but it feels like a matter of when, not if they’ll be regular contributors to the lineup. On the blue line, the future belongs to players like the 6-foot-6, 213-pound 17-year-old Jackson van de Leest and import Vladislav Yeryomenko, who has almost equalled last year’s 62-game production of 25 points (6G-19A) in just 24 games this season.
These players aren’t household names yet, but consider Saturday a prime opportunity for the Hitmen’s young guns to eventually put their team back on the map as an Eastern Conference challenger.
Nick Schneider (Calgary Flames) joined the third WHL team of his career after an off-season trade between the Hitmen and Medicine Hat Tigers, and has been a solid backbone for his team at moments throughout the first third of the season.
Saturday’s battle will also be interesting to watch from a special teams perspective. The Hitmen’s power play at home (17.8 per cent) and road penalty kill for the Rebels (68.9 per cent) rank near the bottom of the league, placing both teams on the same level. On the other end of the game’s special teams battle, the Hitmen’s home penalty kill (76.0 per cent) and Rebels’ road power play (18.4 per cent) should once again be an even battleground where both teams will be pressing for the edge that could push them over the top.
Watch for those battles and more as the Hitmen host the Rebels live from Calgary on Sportsnet’s Saturday Showcase!
Red Deer Rebels
Head coach: Brent Sutter
Leading scorers: RW Mason McCarty (12-10-22); LW Brandon Hagel (6-15-21), C Kristian Reichel* (10-10-20)
Leading goaltender: Ethan Anders (16 GP, 4-11-0-0, 3.33 GAA, 0.898 SV%)
Power play: 17th – 17.8 per cent
Penalty kill: 14th – 76.1 per cent
Injuries/Unavailable: D Dawson Barteaux (upper-body, day-to-day)
Head coach: Dallas Ferguson
Leading scorers: C Matteo Gennaro (14-11-25); D Vladislav Yeryomenko (6-14-20); D Jake Bean (3-17-20)
Leading goaltender: Nick Schneider (21 GP, 6-11-3-1, 3.60 GAA, 0.886 SV%)
Power play: T-18th – 17.5 per cent
Penalty kill: Eighth – 78.7 per cent
Injuries/Unavailable: LW Beck Malenstyn (upper-body, two-to-four weeks)
Oct. 20 – Calgary 2 Red Deer 4
Nov. 25 – Red Deer at Calgary*
Dec. 2 – Calgary at Red Deer
Feb. 7 – Calgary at Red Deer
Feb. 21 – Red Deer at Calgary
Feb. 28 – Calgary at Red Deer
Mar. 4 – Red Deer at Calgary
*Indicates Sportsnet #SaturdayShowcase broadcast