Short-manned Calgary Hitmen hurt by shorthanded goals in Game 4 loss

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The short end of the stick got the better of the Calgary Hitmen on Wednesday night at the Dome.

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To start the game, the hosts found themselves shorthanded with their three most experienced playoff talents absent from the lineup.

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And then a pair of shorthanded daggers as part of a four-goal second period by the visiting Red Deer Rebels tilted the 6-1 Game 4 before another small gathering of 3,466 fans, pushing the Hitmen to the brink of elimination in the 2023 Western Hockey League playoffs.

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It’s now do-or-die for the Calgary crew in Game 5 of the WHL first-round series Friday night at the Peavey Mart Centrium in Red Deer (7 p.m.).

“We’ve got to get back here for Sunday,” said Hitmen head coach Steve Hamilton of the if-necessary matinee at Scotiabank Saddledome (2 p.m.). “That’s it. That’s the mandate. We’ve got to get it back to home ice in Game 6. That’s a real short-term goal. Can’t look too big picture. We’ve got to find a way to get it back here for Sunday.”

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To do that, they’ll need to lock it down defensively against the potent Rebels attack — something that got away from them Wednesday …

Although that was mostly due to special teams that went awry.

The Hitmen allowed three power-play goals — on seven Rebels chances — and two shorthanded markers against, while capitalizing just once on 11 man-advantage markers of their own, thanks mostly to having the team’s entire top line out due to injury.

Indeed, the Hitmen were without their only three players who came into the series with playoff experience — captain Riley Fiddler-Schultz, fellow 20-year-old Jacob Wright and sniper Sean Tschigerl.

“Sixty percent of our power play is sitting in the crowd, and that doesn’t help,” Hamilton said. “I told them to be proud of their effort and make sure that we’re hard to play against and we’re direct and doing the things that we wanted to accomplish. At times during the five-on-five play, I thought we did a good job of being simple and direct. But on special teams, we weren’t equipped to get into that kind of a game.

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“Quite honestly, they’ve just got more skill than we do, so if you’re going to give them that many chances …”

The short-manned Hitmen did fare well in the first period, keeping it scoreless through 20 minutes, before striking first on the power play that was termed “rancid” by Hamilton after the Game 3 loss.

Carter Yakemchuk’s hard shot somehow found its way through Rebels goaltender Kyle Kelsey, who then spun around to grab the trickling puck before accidentally knocking it into the net. It was Ethan Moore getting credit for the goal 5:30 into the second period.

But it didn’t take long for the Rebels to answer.

And when they did, the goals came fast and furious on goaltender Brayden Peters, who has stood tall throughout the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal. 

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First for the talented Rebels came a hot-shot on their own power play, with Ben King blasting a no-doubter on a one-timer to draw the teams even at the 11:56 mark.

Just 57 seconds, the visitors then took the lead with their first of two straight shorthanded goals. With too many Hitmen caught chasing the puck on the sideboards, Ollie Josephson found himself all alone in the slot, received a pass and wired a shot into the far-side top corner behind Peters.

The goal — “marred by blatant mistakes,” Hamilton said — seemed to break the Hitmen spirit.

“We’ve talked about it before — you’re got to secure the puck,” the coach continued. “We didn’t attempt to secure the puck. We just wanted to play light, and that team doesn’t play light. They weren’t giving the puck back to us just because we wanted it or asked for it or swooped by for it. They possessed it and made plays, and then it’s in the back of your net — and it knocks the wind out of your sails, for sure.”

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Before the second intermission, the Rebels scored twice more to up their lead to 4-1 — the first from Jhett Larson with the Rebels shorthanded, and the second by Hunter Mayo, again just 57 seconds apart.

Larson’s insurance came again with the Hitmen on a power play, as he got in alone in tight on a rush and pushed the puck through the legs of Peters. The Mayo marker came on a point-shot through traffic that eluded the Hitmen ’tender.

With special teams the name of the game, the Rebels used another two power-play tallies to rubber-stamp the decision in the third period. 

Veteran King, who missed half the season but still managed a point-a-game-plus pace, used Kalan Lind as a screen in putting the man-advantage puck past Peters.

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Kai Uchacz then scored his fourth of the playoffs with 7:51 remaining in regulation, bringing in Ethan Buenaventura into the Hitmen net in place of the 20-year-old Peters.

The veteran goalie finished with 33 saves, while Buenaventura stopped two pucks for the Hitmen.

In the Rebels net, it was Kyle Kelsey making 36 stops.

“It was 100 percent decided by special teams,” Hamilton said. “We’d done an excellent job killing penalties up until this point, and they broke free a little bit.

“Those two shorthanded goals killed us,” added Hamilton. “They killed our momentum. We were pretty shorthanded (with injuries), so we knew coming into the game we had to grind out a tight game. It didn’t have to be pretty — just had to be a frustrating game for them to play in. And we lost that momentum through special teams.”

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The Hitmen penalty-killing unit, which led the WHL in the regular season, was perfect in the playoffs until the second-period goal Wednesday by King, killing off 19 straight Rebels power plays … Peters came into the game having made the most saves — with 372 in 11 games — in the WHL since March 5 …The forward trio of Fidder-Schultz, Tschigerl and Wright — who’s been sidelined for weeks — joined RW Billal Noori — out with a season-ending injury — on the sidelines for Game 4.


(Rebels lead WHL Eastern Conference best-of-seven quarterfinal 3-1)

Friday: Rebels 3, Hitmen 0

Saturday: Hitmen 2, Rebels 1 (OT)

Monday: Rebels 4, Hitmen 2

Wednesday: Rebels 6, Hitmen 1

Friday: at Red Deer, 7 p.m.

*Sunday: at Saddledome, 2 p.m.

*Tuesday: at Red Deer, 7 p.m.

* — if necessary


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