EDMONTON - This is exactly where the Red Deer Rebels were last year.
That doesn’t make it any easier to be an Edmonton Oil King at the moment. But it offers some hope.
Last season, the Rebels were swept in the first round of the WHL playoffs by the Saskatoon Blades. And became one of the top-5 teams in the WHL this season.
That’s not to say the Oil Kings will make that kind of leap. But there is a core here with promise.
This sweep was a case of two similar teams, one proving much better than the other, one proving that they learned from last season and were determined not to let it happen again. Of course, the Rebels were helped by the junior superstar talents of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
That tends to help a little.
As did his nine points in the four games. His four points in the first game topped the combined totals of the Oil Kings’ two top scorers on the season, Michael St. Croix and Dylan Wruck. It wasn’t from lack of effort. The Rebels got game offensively and defensively from their entire lineup and all-star goalie Darcy Kuemper played like he did all year.
By the way, Nugent-Hopkins had two points in his first playoff go-round.
“Red Deer deserved to win the series, obviously,” said Oil Kings head coach Derek Laxdal.
“You know what they say: you have to lose before you win. It wasn’t like we were pushed around for four games.
“And with the group of guys we have coming back next year, I think they’re going to have a bitter taste in their mouths. They’re going to understand what playoffs are all about ... (but) it’s going to hurt for a few days.”
In fact, they may have been just right for the Rebels, just what they needed in the first round: a tough test, but over quickly.
“It’s easy to look at the scores — two 5-to-1 games and a four-game sweep — but it was a tighter series than it looked,” said Rebels’ bench boss Jesse Wallin.
“It was a series that I think makes your team better. It was hard fought and they didn’t give us anything.”