KEEPING THE BARONS AT BAY
With the Oklahoma City Barons' playoff hopes hanging in the balance, the Abbotsford Heat had a chance to play spoiler.
On Friday evening, the Heat knocked off the Barons in a 3-2 nail biter thanks to a 35-save performance from Joni Ortio, who was named first star of the game.
Less than two minutes into the game, Corey Locke found Brett Olson in slot who backhanded it top shelf over Richard Bachman. At 5:34 of the opening frame, Derek Smith weaved his way through the neutral zone, stepped over the blueline and fired a slap shot cleanly into the net to give the Heat a 2-0 lead.
Five minutes into the second period, the Baron's Matt Ford picked up his twenty-fourth of the season on the power play. In the final frame, Ben Street found Blair Jones to give the Heat a 3-1 edge. Late in the period, defenceman Taylor Fedun made it 3-2. In the final few minutes of the period, the Barons peppered Ortio with shots, but the Finnish netminder stood tall to seal the win for the Heat.
In Sunday afternoon's rematch, Oklahoma City refused to give up as they topped the Heat 5-4 in a shootout.
Olson opened the scoring midway through the first period, notching his third goal in as many games on the power play.
In the second period, Austin Fyten responded at 5:56. However, Brett Kulak restored the Heat's lead less than two minutes later when Ben Hanowski found him sneaking in from the point and put it into a wide open net. At 14:31 of the period, Ben Street made it 3-1 for Abbotsford. Former Heat forward Roman Horak picked up his twenty-second of the season to close out the period.
At 6:10 of the final frame, Fyten added his second of the game to knot it at three apiece. Max Reinhart gave his team a 4-3 edge midway through the period, but Curtis Hamilton helped his team battle back to level the scoring at 4-4 and force extra time.
Overtime solved nothing, but C.J. Stretch and Anton Lander made good on their shootout attempts to pick up two important points for the Barons.
Former UMass-Lowell goaltender Doug Carr, making his first professional start for the Heat, stopped 22 of the 26 shots he faced.
The Heat will head out on their final road trip to take on the San Antonio Rampage and Texas Stars in a three-in-three on Friday, Saturday and Sunday to round out the season.
It has been a dream season for Heat netminder Joni Ortio.
Not only has he solidified himself as one of the AHL's premier goalies, he's helped lead a young Abbotsford Heat squad to the playoffs and he's made an impressive NHL debut.
This week, to cap it all off, he was named the American League's top rookie goaltender.
"It's nice recognition. At least I've been doing something right," Ortio smirked.
"It's an award and recognition for the whole team. It's a group effort. I wouldn't have won it without these guys. The way they've played all year, they've been so solid defensively and playing really well. It makes the goalie's job that much easier."
The 22-year-old Finn joins the likes of J.S. Giguere, Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward and Jimmy Howard who have also won the award.
"It's something special for sure. I'm just hoping I can manage the same type of career those guys have. That's the goal. It's nice to be in that company for sure."
Heat goaltending coach Jordan Sigalet, who has worked alongside Ortio all season, knows first-hand what having a steady goaltender between the pipes does for his team.
"The guys have a lot of confidence in Joni already," explained Sigalet, "and I think [the award] just makes it even more. I think they give him a hard time more than anything because he played here two years ago and now he's being named to the rookie All-Star team. So they're telling him he's going to start cleaning buses."
With an individual record of 25-8-0, there's little wonder Ortio was named the Heat's 2013-14 Most Valuable Player on Sunday afternoon. The confidence he gives his teammates on the ice has been noted time and time again. For Sigalet, the proof of Ortio's impact on the team was best displayed when he wasn't present.
"The times when our team took kind of a slide was when he was gone. I know we were missing a lot of guys at that point, but he gives our team a lot of stability when he's in the net. It gives them the confidence that they need. They've relied on him a lot and he's bailed us out of some games. Hopefully he can build on that going into the playoffs because we're going to need him."
The 2013-14 Calder Cup playoffs are just around the corner for the Abbotsford Heat. But why wait for the playoffs to start to begin preparation? Head coach Troy G. Ward has already begun getting his troops into a playoff mentality.
"We'll discuss it in team meetings, but the main thing is just how they live their life," he said.
"That's our focus right now. It's how they manage their life. This time of year for a lot of kids, we've got to rearrange their day-to-day mundane things … We've got to not text and Instagram and Facebook as much. They've just got to really hunker into their own life and focus. That's how I feel. It's changing their normal day-to-day activities to a certain extent that has more focus to what they're doing … To me, we've done it all year. We know how to play, we know the process we go through - it's the other twenty-two hours of the day I don't see them."
According to Olson, the mental and physical shift to playoff hockey is already fully underway.
"The transition [has] pretty much already started," acknowledged the Superior, WI native.
"I think we knew going back, some of the games in Toronto and Utica, those were starting to become playoff hockey games because we hadn't clinched yet and we want to go into the playoffs rolling. So hopefully we can continue to get some points going into the playoffs and it's already started for us."
Before Sunday afternoon's game, the Abbotsford Heat announced their annual season player awards.
Chad Billins was named the team's top defenceman, posting 40 points (10 goals, 30 points) in 62 games. The Marysville, MI native proved himself to be a consistent threat as the Heat's go-to power play quarterback.
Flashy Finnish forward Markus Granlund was awarded the team's top rookie award. In 50 games with the Heat, the 20-year-old notched 44 points (23 goals, 21 assists) and solidified himself as one of the league's top rookie goal scorers for months on end, earning himself a recall to the Calgary Flames.
In his first professional season, Corban Knight was named the Heat's Community Player of the Year. When he's not on the ice, the High River, AB native spends countless hours in the community, including reading to children, volunteering at the food bank and donating his time playing hockey with various charitable organizations.
Max Reinhart won the Fan's Choice award for the most popular Heat player. The 22-year-old centre exploded for 58 points (20 goals, 38 assists) in 63 games in his second season of pro hockey. The Vancouver native led his team in scoring for most of the season and has proven to be one of the team's most versatile forwards.
Lastly, Joni Ortio's outstanding rookie season earned him team MVP honours. The Finnish net-minder has won 71 per cent of the games he's appeared in. Currently, Ortio has a 2.35 goals against average and a 0.924 save percentage to go along with 25 wins.
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