HITTING THEIR STRIDE
What a year it's been.
The Abbotsford Heat capped off their regular season this week, cementing the 2013-14 roster as the most successful in franchise history. With 43 wins and 94 points, this year's Heat team edged out the 2011/12 roster's previous record of 42 wins and 92 points.
But the regular season is now in the rear view mirror for Troy G. Ward's club. The focus for the last several weeks has been on gearing up both mentally and physically for the playoffs and it appears the Heat are peaking at the right time.
This week, the Heat traveled to the Lone Star State to face the San Antonio Rampage and Texas Stars in a three-in-three set. Abbotsford's depth is as strong as it's been all season and one newcomer in particular made an immediate impact on the scoresheet - Emile Poirier.
On Thursday, the Heat knocked off the Rampage 3-1 as Abbotsford's rookie of the year Markus Granlund and veteran enforcer Trevor Gillies returned to the lineup.
After a scoreless first period, Ben Hanowski opened the scoring in the middle frame for his thirteenth tally of the season. Blair Jones picked up his third goal in his last four games two minutes later to give the Heat a 2-0 lead. Veteran Corey Locke added his ninth of the campaign from Ben Street at 11:01 of the period. San Antonio's John McFarland brought the score to 3-1, but Joni Ortio made 14 saves in the third period to pick up his 26th victory.
In Friday's rematch, head coach Ward elected to rest many of his key players in preparation of the looming playoffs, which allowed rookie Poirier to play his first professional game.
Just 3:07 into the opening frame, Zach Davies gave the Heat an early lead on the power play from Max Reinhart and Brett Kulak. With just over five minutes remaining in the period, Poirier notched his first professional goal on a two-on-one feed from Reinhart to give the Heat a 2-0 edge.
In the third period, Reinhart made it 3-0 as the Heat locked it down to help rookie netminder Doug Carr pick up his first professional win and shutout. Carr made 27 saves and was named the second star of the game.
In the final game of the regular season, the Heat held on 4-3 to knock off the Texas Stars.
In just his second game back from injury, Granlund scored back-to-back markers less than three minutes apart. Poirier collected primary helpers on each of Granlund's goals. With 1:39 remaining in the opening frame, Poirier made it 3-0 to cap off a three point period for the rookie, as he took home first star honours.
However, the Stars did respond in the second period with goals from Taylor Vause and Matej Stransky. In the third period, AHL Rookie of the Year Curtis McKenzie leveled the scoring with his 27th of the season. At 9:51, Locke put the Heat up 4-3 with his second goal in as many games. Ortio stopped 37 of 40 shots in the win.
The Heat will now return home to the Abbotsford Centre where they will face the Grand Rapids Griffins in the opening round of the Calder Cup Playoffs on Friday and Saturday evening.
It was a monstrous season for Keegan Kanzig, both literally and figuratively.
On the one hand, the Flames' 2013 third-rounder has filled out to a jaw-dropping 6-foot-6, 245-pound towering blueliner. On the other hand, being in one of the last rounds of cuts during Flames training camp, Kanzig gained invaluable experience that he took into his third season with the Victoria Royals.
"It was huge," he said. "I learned a lot skating with the players and the coaching staff is very knowledgeable. I gained a lot of new information and stuff to work on going back [to Victoria]. That was big for me this year and it really helped me in my play this season."
While the Athabasca, AB native won't wow you with offensive numbers, his defensive game improved substantially. His improved play, along with his leadership, helped the Royals put together their best season yet.
"It was a really good season for us. A lot of people outside our room didn't expect us to have the season we did. It shows that [when] you come together and play as a unit, as a team, you can have a good season.
"I think we had good success during the regular season and set some records with the franchise. You never like getting knocked out of the playoffs. We obviously wanted to make it further, and we thought we had the team to do it, but unfortunately it wasn't our year."
In the meantime, Kanzig, along with a large group of young black aces, is looking forward to his time with the playoff-bound Abbotsford Heat - time that will surely help the hulking defender round out his game even more.
"They're going into the playoffs here soon, so that will be some really intense hockey. I've never spent time at this level before, so it'll be something to see it in the playoffs. But I'm very excited to spend some time with the team and everyone here and work hard in practices - just try and do my best to gain some pro experience."
BRING ON THE GRIFFINS
The Heat are set to face the defending Calder Cup champions, the Grand Rapids Griffins in the first round of the playoffs. The first game will take place on Friday evening at the Abbotsford Centre.
The series will feature one of the best goaltending duos of the first round with Heat MVP Joni Ortio taking on one of the American league's best young net-minders in Petr Mrazek.
In four games against the Griffins this season, the Heat posted a 1-2-0-1 record. Reinhart had five goals and seven points against the Griffins this season, while Sven Baertschi and Locke had five points each. At the other end of the ice, rookie Teemu Pulkkinen, Jordin Tootoo and Adam Almquist each had four points against Abbotsford.
The Heat enter the post-season as one of the hottest teams. Abbotsford is on a 6-0-0-1 steak and have gone 8-1-0-1 in their past 10 games. However, Grand Rapids enters the playoffs on a lukewarm note. The Griffins are 5-4-0-1 in their last 10 games and have scored just nine goals in their past five matches.
THREE STARS OF THE WEEK
First Star: Max Reinhart - The sophomore pro capped off what turned out to be a dream season with a big five point weekend. Reinhart picked up a goal and four assists as he set the Abbotsford Heat's franchise record with points in a season. The Vancouver native finished with 63 points in 66 games, beating Krys Kolanos' previous record of 61.
Second Star: Emile Poirier - He couldn't have asked for a better start to his professional career. In just his first two pro games, the Montreal native picked up two goals and two assists playing alongside Reinhart and Granlund.
Third Star: Joni Ortio - It should be of no surprise, but Joni Ortio geared up for the playoffs with two wins in his two starts this weekend. The 23-year-old Finn posted a 2.00 goals against average and a 0.948 save percentage to help the Heat achieve a franchise record 43 wins.
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