HEAT GO COLD HEADING INTO BREAK
The Abbotsford Heat headed into the American Hockey League All-Star break on a losing note, having dropped back-to-back games at home versus the Chicago Wolves.
The Wolves would be an unlikely rival if not for one fact – their NHL affiliate is the Vancouver Canucks and Vancouver is only about an hour’s drive from the Flames’ farm team. In the past two year the Manitoba Moose were the Canucks’ affiliate and those games drew additional fans of the visiting team.
The opener on Tuesday, Jan. 24 ended 3-2 but the game probably wasn’t as close as the final score suggests. Chicago jumped to a 2-0 lead on goals from NHL-veteran Steve Reinprecht and led 3-0 after 40 minutes. Late goals cut the deficit to one goal but Abbotsford couldn’t complete the comeback.
Reinprecht was the Heat-chiller again Wednesday night, scoring two-first period goals en-route to Chicago’s 5-0 win.
“You’re not going to win any hockey game, home or away, if you don’t get off to a good start,” said head coach Troy Ward. “In this particular series that was the Achilles Heel for us.” Though Chicago clearly is a talented group of prospects and professional veterans, Abbotsford may have beaten themselves as much as anything.
“I don’t know if they gave us trouble as much as we gave ourselves trouble,” said Ward. “I didn’t like us in either game. This is a timing league – if you hit teams at the right time you’ll have success. You can say the same thing in the first two games there, ‘Why did the Heat come down and beat you twice in your barn.’”
The bad timing Ward was talking about is the roster-in-flux that the Heat have had to deal with over the last month.
“We’ve been out of sync with a lot of new bodies here,” said Ward.
“The AHL is a development league,” said defenceman Joe Piskula. “Winning is important but [so is] getting guys to do their role and the right thing. In between some guys are playing well. We’ve just got to be consistent. We’ve got guys coming in and out of the lineup. Injuries, new guys, call-up, guys coming from Calgary. We’ve just got to accept those guys and everybody’s got to find their role. It’s part of the AHL – there’s always movement.”
Roman Horak was reassigned to Abbotsford by the Flames in time for Wednesday’s game but looked out of place playing with linemates for the first time. Plus they are still without the services of top forwards Greg Nemisz and Jon Rheault, as well as a few ECHL fill-ins that haven’t quite caught up to the AHL pace yet.
“The American League is a land of opportunity,” said Ward. “This is a time, with all our injuries, with guys trying to forge their life into a new direction. You’ve got to make it happen. You’ve got to…do something really special. If you don’t, your job is short-lived. When [they] work as hard as the kids do you want to see them do well. Our power play (which only scored once in the past eight games) didn’t do very well [because] we had some young guys out there so I wish they would have done well for their careers.”
Abbotsford doesn’t play again until Feb. 2 versus the Rochester Americans because of the AHL’s All-Star Game in Atlantic City today (Monday, Jan. 30).The break was welcomed by Heat alternate captain Ben Walter in a post-game press conference but his coach is less optimistic about the benefits of the layoff.
“As a player it comes at a good time but as a coach it doesn’t,” said Ward. “It’s time to fix things right now. It might be a good thing for us but the realization is that we still come back as a group. We still have a bunch of unhealthy bodies and a bunch of players in Calgary. We’re going back to reality next week when we forge together in Rochester.” Since being tied for first in the Western Conference about three weeks ago while on the road the Heat have dropped to third in the West Division, one point out of second and a whopping 10 points behind the top-ranked Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton Oilers affiliate). However, with a few losses piling up, Ward isn’t panicking yet.
“I’m not really worried right now,” said Ward after Wednesday’s loss. “It’s inevitable in the American Hockey League, you go through your stretches. Every team’s went through it. We could go through adversity another three weeks and I’m not going to [flinch]. If we lose some games in this time that’s okay with me. We’ve got to win at a certain time. Coming out of the break what’s important is staying together as a group and make the new guys that are part of our system better players so we can play a better game."
GOAL CREASE GETS A MAKEOVER
Calgary’s 2009 sixth-rounder Joni Ortio earned his first AHL win last weekend and got some action Wednesday in relief. However, he has likely played his last game for the Abbotsford Heat this season as the crease was about to get crowded. Ortio was reassigned to TPS Turku of SM-Liiga in Finland, his native country.
His roster spot was first in jeopardy when the Heat signed goalie Danny Taylor in early December. However, almost the next day the Flames were forced to call up starting goalie Leland Irving to back-up Mikka Kiprusoff when Henrik Karlsson went down with a knee injury. Now, with Karlsson skating with the team again, it is expected that either he will be sent to Abbotsford on a conditioning stint or Irving will return to the blue paint he patrolled over the past two-plus years.
Ortio got one last shot to play though, because Taylor seems to have lost the confidence of Ward, at least in a perceptional way.
“With Taylor, of late, I haven’t liked how he’s managed the game,” said Ward. “He’s lost, a little bit, his swagger. At that particular time Joni had some swagger -- he won at home last Saturday. I thought he could give us some of that swagger. I don’t think posturely that Taylor has been the same the last couple weeks. I thought he was fighting the puck a little bit.”
ALL-STAR DEFENCEMAN TO JOIN HEAT
The Abbotsford Heat have finally found a replacement for slick defenceman Brendan Mikkelson, who was traded by the Flames to Tampa Bay (for Blair Jones). The Flames have traded Brendan Morrison to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Brian Connelly.
“In Brian Connelly we obtain a 25 year-old highly skilled AHL All-Star defenseman who is still a legitimate prospect,” said Flames/Heat general manager Jay Feaster. “We are excited to have Brian in the organization."
Connelly was playing for the Rockford Ice Hogs, who he recorded an AHL career high 52 points last season. This year he had five goals and 31 assists in 44 games.
He was named to the Western Conference’s all-star line-up and wore an Abbotsford jersey for the first time Sunday during the skills competition, where he won the fastest skater race.
Not a bad way to make a first impression on fellow Heat all-stars Krys Kolanos and Clay Wilson, who could very well be Connelly’s back-end partner on the power play unit come February.