April 25th, 2024

We have to be smart against Red Deer: Desjardins

By JAMES TUBB on March 28, 2024.

NEWS PHOTO JAMES TUBB Medicine Hat Tigers associate coach Joe Frazer and head coach Willie Desjardins speak during a stoppage in play in the third period of a 5-2 win over the Regina Pats at Co-op Place on Feb. 6


Willie Desjardins has seen the Red Deer Rebels a lot in his WHL coaching career.

The Medicine Hat Tigers bench boss has faced off against the Rebels in the playoffs four times, losing his first series in 2002-03 and winning the next three matchups.

The two teams have only met six times in the postseason, with Medicine Hat winning five of six heading into their first-round series that gets underway Friday with Game 1 at Co-op Place. It’s a matchup Desjardins is intimately familiar with and says won’t disappoint.

“They’re a really hard playoff team, they’re a different playoff team than in the regular season,” Desjardins said. “It’s always a team that makes a big jump from regular season to the playoffs and they build their team for playoffs. Lots of teams build for regular season, they always build for playoffs and that’s what they’re looking for.

“Last year they gave Saskatoon a good series, they always build playoffs so they’re going to be good. They’re going to be heavy, they always play physical, so I have a pretty good idea of how they’re going to play and I know they’re not going to disappoint, they’re going to come hard.”

The Tigers and Rebels met six times in the regular season, winning four of six matches with two of the victories needing overtime. Medicine Hat is the more offensive team of the two with Red Deer finding success through defensive structure that leads to the puck going the other way. How his team will combat that, Desjardins says, will come from playing smart and hard work.

“We’re younger, we’ve tried to build a little different, but Red Deer is fast, they have some fast guys in every line,” Desjardins said. “We like to play quick, so it’s a pretty even grouping. There wasn’t a big difference between us in the standings, both teams are beat up at the end. We’re really pretty similar where we’re at and for us, it’s nice to get home ice and we have to take advantage of it.”

The Tigers have four injured forwards in Cayden Lindstrom, Shane Smith, Marcus Pacheco and Vasyl Spilka. Desjardins says they’re hoping to get some guys back for the playoffs and says they’ll have a better idea closer to the series who can play.

Those injuries allowed some of the younger players in the lineup to get more minutes as Medicine Hat has played with a shorthanded lineup for a majority of the last third of the season. Desjardins says it was important their rookies got those extra minutes and more responsibility but says they’ll have to make adjustments on the fly as players potentially draw back in.

“It hurts you a little bit because you’re not used to it, we are used to playing three lines, like there’s forwards getting 27, 28 minutes a night, which they’re not going to get in the playoffs,” Desjardins said. “Now they’re going to have to get used to playing 22 minutes again rather than that, so that’s a bit of a change.

“When you’re playing that kind of minutes, you’re not playing as hard as you can all the time, so we got to get back to playing with pace, we have to get back playing quick and you only do that through shorter shifts. So there’s some adjustments, which I wish were already in place so guys were used to it. But saying that it’s also good to get the young guy in, so there’s kind of good and bad.”

Playoffs provide the moments that players can create a mythology about themselves with success and create a further legacy with fans. It’s also the time of year Desjardins says he likes scouting and recruiting from because he wants to see how players perform on their biggest stage. Looking at his own team, he wouldn’t single out any one player who has to find that next level when puck drops on the first round but says it has to be everyone on the bench.

“It’s everybody. You might look at one line scoring, one not but they’re able to give us balance so that all can go,” Desjardins said. “Because playoffs are long series, it’s not a one game, it’s wearing guys out throughout the series.”

This year’s group provides a different challenge for the franchise’s winningest coach, a decision in net. Rookie net minders Zach Zahara and Ethan McCallum have split duties in net after Evan May was traded at the deadline. Both have similar stateliness, the only real difference being the 18-year-old Zahara has played eight more games than the 17-year-old McCallum.

Desjardins says he’s always liked having one guy in net to turn to but says he’s liked how both have played at times and is looking forward to seeing who steps up at the right time of year.

“We’ve waited for one guy to kind of take over and both guys have played well at different times,” Desjardins said. “So it is a little bit unusual for us to go into the playoffs this way, but the good thing about it is both guys have shown well at times, like really well. They are looking for the opportunity to step up, too, so we’re lucky we have two guys.”

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