The Kootenay Ice and Red Deer Rebels go head-to-head for the fifth time this season Friday night at Western Financial Place.

The Kootenay Ice and Red Deer Rebels go head-to-head for the fifth time this season Friday night at Western Financial Place.

Central Division clash in Cranbrook

The Kootenay Ice and Red Deer Rebels continue the push for the WHL post-season with a Central Division tilt Friday night

Taylor Rocca

The Red Deer Rebels visit Cranbrook Friday night and head coach Ryan McGill’s Kootenay Ice plan to be ready for a recently-bolstered Central Division rival.

Since the two teams last met Jan. 2 in Red Deer (a 5-3 win for the Ice), Rebels head coach and general manager Brent Sutter went out and made a splash on the WHL trade front, acquiring forward Connor Gay and a bundle of WHL Bantam Draft selections from the Regina Pats in exchange for prospect Jake Leschyshyn and a 2017 fourth-round pick.

At 6-feet tall and 190 pounds, Gay brings size and offensive finish to the Rebels, having tallied 20 goals and 44 points through 39 games prior to his trade to Red Deer.

“First and foremost against [the Rebels], you have to outwork them,” McGill said Thursday afternoon. “If you’re willing to be competitive and outwork them, then you’re going to have a chance. You have to try to create turnovers and when you create turnovers, you take advantage.

“Gay gives them more size, gives them some more skill and gives them some more grit. For them, it’s a positive and for us, it’s another challenge.”

While the Rebels are boosted by the addition of Gay, McGill’s squad will receive an injection as well.

Fresh off medal-winning performances at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship (WJC), captain Sam Reinhart and defenceman Rinat Valiev return to the Kootenay Ice.

“[The experience at the WJC] is different for every guy,” said McGill, who was a part of Canada’s coaching staff at the 2014 IIHF WJC. “Last year, Sam came back and he was unbelievable. You saw this year at the tournament, he was unbelievable. He’s a smart player. You would like to think the tournament spring-boarded him into the second half [of last season] but I really believe it’s just the way he is as a player.”

Upon returning to the Kootenay Ice from the WJC in 2014, Reinhart registered points in 19 consecutive games — a whopping 18 goals and 26 assists. In 27 games following the WJC last season, the North Vancouver native was only blanked on the scoresheet three times, as he wrapped up 20 goals and 55 points en route to becoming the second-overall selection of the Buffalo Sabres at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.

“Certainly, the guys coming back — Rinat and Sam — should be coming back with a lot of confidence because of how high a level they were playing at,” McGill added. “Hopefully the [other] guys can keep up to that pace of thinking. Really, that’s what it’s about — thinking fast, making good plays with elite players.”

Valiev, who attended his first WJC with Team Russia, was sick and unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon. As for Reinhart, he is scheduled to fly into Cranbrook Friday afternoon in time to suit up against the Rebels.

Since Reinhart departed for the WJC Dec. 10, alternate captain Jaedon Descheneau has been doing all he can to carry his team’s offence. In eight games without the captain, Descheneau stacked up five goals and eight assists. The native of Edmonton, Alta., had a seven-game point streak snapped last Saturday in a 3-1 loss against his hometown Oil Kings, but will look to start a new streak Friday night.

“We’ve got to play them the way we played them last Friday,” Descheneau said of facing the Rebels. “Play them hard, get pucks behind their ‘D’ and work the cycle game down low to find areas and penetrate the middle of the ice.”

Heading into Friday’s tilt, the Rebels (21-14-3-2, 47 points) hold down third place in the WHL’s Central Division while the Ice (21-18-0-1, 43) remain close behind in fourth.

The Ice and Rebels have split four games in their seven-game season series to this point in the campaign. Both Kootenay victories over the Rebels came in Red Deer by identical scores of 5-3 (Sept. 19 at Jan. 2), while the Rebels earned a 7-1 win on home ice Sept. 27 and a 7-3 triumph in Cranbrook on Oct. 31.

Puck drop between the Ice and Rebels is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Western Financial Place.

Highlights: Kootenay Ice 5 at Red Deer Rebels 3 (Jan. 2, 2015)