It's safe to say the odds were stacked against the Heat in this post-All-Star break weekend set against the Charlotte Checkers. Due to a large snow storm that hit the Carolinas hard this week, most flights were cancelled in and out of Raleigh, North Carolina.
Twenty hours of an excruciatingly boring bus ride would be enough to take the life out of even the most hardened professional athlete, but not the Heat. Coach Ward noted that he noticed no ill effects from all that time on the bus and he was right.
The Heat were able to pick up a big three points against their division rivals with a win and an overtime loss on the weekend.
On Saturday afternoon, the Heat handily beat the Checkers 5-1 thanks to a big offensive performance from the usual suspects.
Markus Granlund got on the board early in the opening frame with his twenty-second goal of the season on a gorgeous snipe. Blair Jones picked up his twelfth goal just 0:14 seconds into the second period.
Charlotte's Victor Rask attempted to make it a game as he brought the score to 2-1, but the Heat continued to pour on the offense. Sven Baertschi notched his fourth of the campaign midway through the second period in a great unassisted effort. In the final period, Ben Street and Ben Hanowski increased the Heat's lead to 5-1. Joni Ortio was a bulwark in the victory as he stopped 29 of 30 shots and took home first star honours.
The two teams renewed hostilities less than 24 hours later in a Sunday afternoon tilt that saw the Heat give up a three goal cushion and lose 5-4 in overtime.
On just the first shift of the game, Josh Jooris put the Heat on the board 1-0 on a forehand, backhand snipe. Corey Locke assisted on the opening goal for his eighth helper in as many games. Aaron Palushaj responded a minute later, however, to even up the score.
Midway through the first period, Derek Smith gave the Heat a 2-1 edge with his ninth point in his last eight games. It was all the Heat's top line from that point on as Jones got on the board with help from Granlund and Max Reinhart. Nearing the end of the period, Granlund extended the lead to 4-1 with assists from Jones and Reinhart.
The Checkers surged back into the game, however, as veteran Chris Terry led the charge with two goals and an assist to come back from a big three-goal deficit. In the extra frame, former Heat forward and Checkers captain Brett Sutter beat Ortio on a wrap around chance to cap off the comeback.
The Heat still hold the throne as they sit in sole possession of first in the Western Conference and West Division. They'll finish out their road trip next weekend with a three-in-three starting in Milwaukee versus the Admirals followed by two games against the Chicago Wolves.
It wasn't a perfect start to Sven Baertschi's Heat debut this season, but patience is a virtue and nobody knows that better than him.
After being sent down to Abbotsford in December, the 21-year-old put up just four points in his first 15 games with the Heat. Now, slowly but surely the Swiss forward has been racking up the points. In his last eight games, he's potted two goals and six points.
"It's been going well right now," the Flames' 2011 first-rounder explained.
"Playing with Locke and Josh (Jooris) has been a lot of fun. At some point, it's nice to have points and everything, but in the end I think you just want to play well. There were nights before where I felt like I was playing really really well and the points weren't there. In the end, if you get in that groove and you feel really well and your game is going, then the points eventually come automatic. So for me, I just had to keep going and now they're coming and I'm just going to try and keep playing the same way."
Heat coach Troy G. Ward noted that the addition of AHL veteran Locke has been instrumental in Baertschi's offensive production as of late, but the principle difference has been a sharp and forthright realization to seize opportunities when they present themselves.
"I think he's just at that point in life down here right now where it's time to make 'hay'. It's just time to make 'hay,' Ward rationalized. "You have a very small window. People like to always be patient and wait for opportunities, sometimes your opportunity in life is real small. It's just the way it works for all of us. When your opportunity is there, you've got to capitalize and go for it.
"For me, what Sven's doing is he's starting to understand this is a small window and, 'I've got to get going a little bit.' There's some resiliency in his game, there's a little bit of swagger in his step, there's a little bit of confidence, but I also think there comes to a point where every player down here in the American league has to have the ability to say, 'that's enough. That's enough. It's time for me to step forward. This is my time,' and I think that's kind of happened in Sven within his own inter-personal life."
No rookie in the Heat's five-year franchise history has had a better season than Markus Granlund.
Forget the fact that he currently has seven goals and 14 points in his last 9 games. Forget that he leads the team in goals and points. You can even forget that he leads all American league rookies in goals and sits fourth in league-wide goal scoring.
But after the season draws to an end, it will be hard to forget that the 20-year-old rookie rewrote Heat franchise record books.
The flashy Oulu, Finland native currently has the sixth highest scoring season in franchise history, he has the third most goals in one season of any Heat player, he's third in franchise points per game and, perhaps most impressive of all, after just 47 professional games he's seventeenth in all-time points for the Abbotsford Heat in anywhere from 19 to 159 fewer games.
Still, the season is not over for Granlund and he is showing no sign of slowing down any time soon as he continues to climb the franchise leaderboards.