Heat Report: 02.04.12
ABBOTSFORD, BC -- The Abbotsford Heat are coming off one of their most important regular season wins in franchise history last week and they’re going to need just as much intensity to secure their position in the tight playoff race.
The Heat hosted the Chicago Wolves, the Vancouver Canucks’ farm team, first losing 5-4 in a shootout and then defeating the Wolves 4-3 in an overtime win Friday night.
The baby Canucks, who were previously the Manitoba Moose, generally draw well at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre and, unfortunately for the Heat, also play well there.
Heading into the two-game set, the Canucks affiliate is 8-1-1 all-time when playing in Abbotsford, including two Chicago wins earlier this year.
“I don’t even know if they knew that,” said head coach Troy Ward when asked about the track record versus the Vancouver affiliates. “It’s a new group. Every year these teams change.”
But was the game important?
“I would concur with you because I’ve been here for two years,” said Ward, who was an assistant coach with the club last season. “Earlier in the year we didn’t have a very good hockey team when they were here – we weren’t very healthy.”
Though Thursday drew just over 4,000 fans, Friday’s game was a sellout of 7,044 – the first this season and just the fourth sellout all time and first since Nov. 27, ’10.
“The majority of them are Canucks fans so it’s a little different,” said Abbotsford’s Jon Rheault. “But when you can feed off that energy, energy is energy and when this place is full it’s a lot of fun to play in front of. They’re a dangerous team when they’re playing for their brass and all their scouts are here so they obviously bring a little extra oomph, if you will, when they come here.”
“It’s good for us,” added Ward. “I like the fact whether you’re a Canucks fan, a Flames fan, a Heat fan or a Wolves fan – a lot of people were here and there was great energy in the building. I’m hoping that people that got to the game today from the Fraser Valley area respect the game enough to say ‘hey that’s good hockey’ whether it’s Wolves’ hockey or whoever is here playing. It was a true pleasure to play in front of that many fans. It was an entertaining game for the fans and a good hockey game.”
The Heat had a 3-1 lead Friday and let the Wolves tie the game thanks to Chicago’s efficient power play, which went three-for-four. However, other than that, the team was pleased with their effort.
“If you look at that game five-on-five, I thought we managed a good hockey game,” said Ward. “They got all three of their goals on the power play.”
“I thought we had more energy,” said Ward. “Last night (Thursday) I thought we played a little on our heels. Tonight we just had a much stronger push. We played more aggressive, more on our toes.”
Clay Wilson was reassigned by the Flames to the Heat Friday morning. The veteran defenceman made an impact again, despite the flight across the Rockies in the middle of his daytime routine.
“I felt really good, actually. I had my legs under me,” said Wilson. “I was lucky enough to get to skate this morning in Calgary.”
The importance of number-five on the Heat returning to the fold was not lost on his head coach after Friday’s win, in which Wilson scored the third goal.
“It’s one man’s opinion, if we had an MVP, it would be him,” said Ward. “I thought it was huge [getting him back in the lineup]. He eats up so many minutes – they had to be close to 30. He flew here today, was in Calgary for a morning skate and has a change to come play with his teammates he’s been with all year. He’s a good, mature man who’s been through the ranks a little bit.”
“His play [Friday] was indicative of how he’s been all year for us.”
Brian Connelly picked a great time to get his first goal for the Abbotsford Heat.
The offensively-gifted defenceman scored with 11.9 seconds to go in overtime to play hero for the Heat Friday night. Connolly took a feed from Ben Walter and beat goalie Matt Climie glove side for his sixth of the season.
“It all started in the D-zone,” said the Bloomington, MN native. “We created a turnover and I saw an opportunity to jump in. Wally (Ben Walter) made a good pass across the ice. I just tried to put it on net and it went in.”
It was his first goal in 23 games since the Calgary Flames acquired him in a trade for Brendan Morrison. When he joined the Heat he was second among AHL defencemen in points but has just eight assists for the Flames’ affiliate.
“I’ve been trying to create opportunities and get shots but they haven’t been going in,” said Connolly. “It’s good to get that off my back and hopefully it springboards me into the rest of the season.”
“I was really happy for Brian to get the goal,” said Ward. “I think there were a lot of expectations from Heat fans when he got here. He’s a very dynamic, good offensive player, but part of our job within the framework of the Calgary Flames is to develop him as well defensively. The backseat, to get him to play in the National Hockey League, is getting him to play a little less offensive.”
The Heat have been trying to find an offensive weapon on the backend since Brendan Mikkelson was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier in the year. Connolly has fought the injury bug while he was here already, as well as the occasional benching for defensive lapses.
“He’ll over-exceed anything Mikk could do,” said Ward. “But he is deficient on the other side of the puck a little bit. I don’t mean that in a bad way – that’s part of his development that’s left. He has to learn to defend as a smaller guy and to defend [Mark] Mancaris and guys like that. But he brings a lot of offensive things that we can’t teach other players here, including Mikk. As much as we miss Mikk and his ability to skate, we got a real upgrade on the offensive side of things.”
Ryan Howse left Friday’s game after a collision into the boards and was getting his knee examined Friday night but “seems to be okay.” He also blocked a shot earlier in the period that shook him up.
As for injured players returning to the lineup, captain Quintin Laing returned after a cut on his foot healed and Jon Rheault, who missed 23 games with an upper body injury, returned as well. Both had assists Friday night.
“It’s been a long time,” said Rheault. “I’ve spent a lot of time watching. That’s tough to do. I felt pretty good out there.”
Meanwhile, Roman Horak was assigned to Abbotsford for the remainder of the season.
Horak arrived in time for Thursday game but was a scratch.
“I wanted him to see us play ... and get a feel for our team,” said Ward. “I thought that was important.”
Though he was used sparingly in the first period, he got a lot more minutes when Howse went down, ending the game playing some on second line.
“I liked his energy down the stretch. Roman’s a very good player if he’s played that many games in the NHL. Now it’s a chemistry issue – we’ve got to get him with the right people.”
Abbotsford has six games remaining, including Tuesday and Wednesday against the conference-rival Rochester Americans.
“Right now every point’s so important in our conference, every game’s important,” said Wilson. “It’s going to be like that till the end.”
Abbotsford sits fourth in the Western Conference, but by peaking at the standings, you can see that there is little room for error.
The visit the Charlotte Checkers for a pair before hosting the Toronto Marlies for their final two regular season tilts.