CALGARY, AB -- Buckle up and enjoy the ride.
The Calgary Hitmen (42-26-2-2) and Red Deer Rebels (45-24-1-2) are about to collide in a highly-anticipated first round best-of-seven series, which begins Friday at Red Deer’s Enmax Centrium.
This marks the sixth all-time playoff encounter between the Central Division rivals and first since the Hitmen ousted the Rebels in five games in a 2013 second round series.
“Every game is going to be a fight,” said Hitmen captain Colby Harmsworth, the lone player that remains on Calgary’s roster who suited up in 2013 against Red Deer. “The rivalry is big between us so we're expecting a hard, physical series but also one that's going to be a lot of fun to play in.”
This all-Alberta showdown also sees two sides currently playing some of their best hockey of the season.
The Hitmen enter the series having won six of their last seven games, while the Rebels finished 8-2 over their last 10 regular season outings.
“We’ve played 72 games this season, but this is the reason we play all those games” said head coach Mark French, who led the Hitmen to the Eastern Conference Final last spring in his first season behind the bench. “I thought we gained some momentum over our last 10 games, but even more importantly than our record is that we saw some good pockets of play over the final stretch of the season.”
If there is one thing that veteran Harmsworth has learned from playing in his team-high 37 career playoff games – the most on either side – it’s that his squad can’t allow emotions become too high or too low from game-to-game.
“We have to fight the ups and downs,” Harmsworth said. “We’re a confident group but so are they. Their team changed over the course of the season, and our team changed quite a bit as well, so it’s going to be about which team shows up each night. For us over-agers, it’s a win or go home forever scenario. And I’m not ready to go home yet. None of us are.”
The Rebels finished second place in the Central Division while the Hitmen finished five points back for third place, however Calgary took the seven-game regular season series 4-2-0-1.
Not wanting to take the back door to the Memorial Cup, the host Rebels wasted no time over the holiday break revamping their roster by making no less than four deals within an eight-day span.
Head coach/GM Brent Sutter bolstered his lineup by first acquiring left wing Jake DeBrusk from the Swift Current Broncos on Dec. 27 before obtaining the rights to winger Taden Rattie from Portland less than 24 hours later.
Not content with that, the Rebels attained over-ager Adam Helewka from Spokane on New Year’s Day, before sending a shockwave through the WHL two short days later by snatching high-scoring veteran Luke Philp from the basement-dwelling Kootenay ICE.
“They are a formidable club that does a lot of things really well,” French said. “We know we’re going to have to bring our A-game each and every night. Our goal is to make sure we’re prepared to play to the best of our ability.”
On the injury front, the Rebels are expected to be without the services of goaltender Rylan Toth (lower body, one-to-three weeks), defenceman Josh Mahura (lower body, indefinite) and forwards Conner Bleackley (upper body, week-to-week), Reese Johnson (upper body, indefinite) and Evan Polei (upper body, week-to-week).
Rookie winger Matt Dorsey, who has yet to make his WHL debut, is the lone Hitmen on the shelf.
The defensive duo of Jake Bean and Travis Sanheim – both named to the WHL Eastern Conference Second All-Star Team – led all Hitmen in the season series with 10 points. Bean, who was also named the Eastern Conference’s Most Sportsmanlike Player, scored a team-leading six goals, while Adam Helewka paced the Rebels with six points (all goals) in five games.
In between the pipes, neither team’s starting goalies have suited up for a single playoff game. In fact, the same goes for each team’s backups.
Cody Porter is expected to receive the nod for Game 1, while at the opposite end Trevor Martin is the probable starter.
Porter, who was acquired in a five-player blockbuster deal with the Vancouver Giants in late October, finished his breakout season with a 25-11-1-1 record, a 3.04 GAA and .885 save percentage with three shutouts.
Martin, meanwhile, who had played only 20 games prior to this season, went 18-8-1-1 with a 2.63 GAA and .911 save percentage with no shutouts.
Hitmen Player to Watch:
RW Jackson Houck – With 312 WHL games under his belt, the 21-year-old winger is the most experienced Hitmen forward suiting up in this series. Having missed the playoffs last season with the Vancouver Giants, he will be one of the hungrier Calgary players as well. The 6’1” 192-pound North Vancouver native also enters the series on a five-game point streak (two goals, six assists). He has registered six points in 10 career playoff games.
Rebels Player to Watch:
LW Adam Helewka – The over-ager was acquired by Red Deer from Spokane for precisely this reason. The 6’2” 200-pound winger has not disappointed while donning a Rebels jersey, amassing 26 goals and 19 assists for 45 points and a plus-25 rating in 34 games. He also lit the lamp an impressive eight times over the last eight regular season games. A Burnaby, B.C. native, Helewka was a fourth round (106th overall) pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2015.