ABBOTSFORD, BC -- The Abbotsford Heat continue to roll despite the temporary departure of their all-league goaltender.
The Heat have now won five straight games, including both ends of a two-game set hosting the Lake Erie Monsters (Colorado Avalanche affiliate). As of Sunday morning they were just two points back of the AHL-leading Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton Oilers affiliate).
Meanwhile, the last three wins have come without the services of Leland Irving, the AHL’s leader in both minutes played and wins, after he was called up Monday morning following Henrik Karlsson’s knee injury sustained during Calgary’s loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
Danny Taylor was signed to an AHL contract during the last road trip and that roster move is looking huge now for the Heat, since Taylor has gone 3-0 with a .977 save percentage and 0.67 GAA since joining the club last weekend. He recorded his first shutout of the year in Abbotsford’s 2-0 win over Lake Erie Friday.
"This team’s been great as far as giving me the first shot and letting me see it," said Taylor. "Our D and our forwards block as many as they could and cleared all the rebounds. You’ve got to credit them."
"Our guys did a nice job around him," said head coach Troy Ward. "They blocked some shots and helped out in a lot of ways, so it was a good group effort but Danny stood tall in moments of truth when he needed to be there."
Ward made 38 saves in the shutout, his first start at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
"The first shot I was pretty comfortable – it was nice to get a soft one in the belly," said Taylor. "After that the rest took care of itself."
With Karlsson expected to miss close to two months, Taylor will need to fill the large shoes of his predecessor if the Heat intend to keep up with the top AHL clubs.
"Leland Irving’s a great goalie an I can only go out there and be myself and do the things that I do that make me be successful," said Taylor. "Like stay centered on pucks, try not to give too many rebounds, putting rebounds into corners, talking to my D-men – simple things that only I can control."
Taylor then stopped 24 of 25 shots in Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Monsters, snapping a shutout streak of 135:02.
UP-AND-DOWN – LINE-UP CHANGES
The Heat have seen quite a few line-up changes over the last week or so, forcing Ward to make some difficult – and some easy – decisions as to line combinations.
Roman Horak was assigned from the Flames to the Heat and played in both games on the weekend set. Though he struggled to get his ‘farm legs’ in the first match, his line with prospects Paul Byron and Ryan Howse was dynamite Saturday, doing everything except scoring in the 3-1 win.
"I thought Roman Horak was a big difference in tonight’s game," said Ward Saturday. "He hit stride. I felt like I was seeing an NHL player out there."
The Heat’s captain Quintin Laing concurred.
"I think Roman is an amazing player," said Laing. "And pair him with Byron, those two guys, and then you’ve got Howse as the trigger man, I thought they played phenomenal tonight. I can’t say enough about Roman. I told him before the game that he’s not going to be here long. He’s an NHL player and he showed it tonight."
Horak and Howse played together with the WHL’s Chilliwack Bruins the last two seasons with quite some chemistry and if Horak’s stay in Abbotsford will last a while, that line will likely rekindle some of that fire.
"[Howse] and I haven’t played together in a long time now but once we get a chance I think we will reunite again," said Horak.
Horak also played on the second power play unit that recorded the winning goal in the 3-1 victory. Laing, Byron, Brendan Mikkelson, Horak and Dustin Sylvester helped the latter record his sixth of the year and second in two games.
"That group, trying to be as respectful as I can, sometimes that group looks like the second unit but in terms of puck movement that’s probably our crispest group," said Ward. "Those guys move and they move all over, tough to contain. Byron up there and him moving all over, and Mikk moving, Sylvester’s a hard guy to contain on the wall. That’s a different group that you have with [Krys] Kolanos, [Ben] Walter and [Clay] Wilson. That’s more of a stationary power group. This other group is seems and movement. That was an unbelievable power play. They were fantastic."
Sylvester, however, played most of the games on the fourth line, flanked by ex-NHL enforcers Raitis Ivanans and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. PL3 set up Sylvester for the insurance goal in the Friday victory.
"Sly happened to be the guy, with Horak coming back down, that shuffled down," said Ward. "Those big guys take up a lot of space and they’re punishing. Sly is a smart hockey player and knows how to get into space and to pucks really quick so it was a good compliment. They did a good job."
"I thought we had a good game tonight as a line," said Sylvester. "We were for the majority of the time in their zone. Those are two pretty tough guys in our league, and even at the NHL level. To play with those guys is a change for me but at the same time it was fun."
Finally, defenceman Brett Carson is still on a conditioning stint with the Heat, recovering from an off-season back injury that has kept him out of action all season. Carson scored the opening goal in Saturday’s win, his first point in four games.
"A guy that hasn’t played all year, you like to see a guy get some success down here so when they go back up the feel good about themselves," said Ward.
HOME RECORD APPROACHES .500
The Heat’s road record had been sensational (14-3-0-0) so it was a relief to see their home record improve this weekend with the two wins (4-5-1-0).
"I think they felt good that they played hard enough and consistent enough to get four points at home and that’ll go a long way towards building momentum as we build towards more of a home schedule in the second half," said Ward.
"It seems like it’s been forever since we won a weekend series at home," said Laing.
"That was a huge win, great team effort, and we needed that momentum with a four-game home stand here so it was a good start for us," said Kolanos after the Friday win.
The second half of the four-game stand is two games versus the Hamilton Bulldogs (Montreal Canadiens affiliate) Friday, Dec. 16 and Sunday, Dec. 18.
"Next weekend will be a tough series," said Ward. "We had to scratch and crawl for everything we got in Hamilton earlier in the year and I would expect nothing different at home this weekend."