ABBOTSFORD, B.C. - Despite coming up short of the ultimate goal, the Abbotsford Heat?s season can?t be looked upon as a failure.
The Heat were eliminated from the post-season by Toronto in five games on Wednesday when Mike Zigomanis scored in overtime of 3-2 Marlies win.
Abbotsford was up 2-0 at one point in the game, but the Marlies rallied to close out the Western Conference final.
?To end the way it did, it kind of stings for everybody in the room,? said Heat defenceman J.P. Testwuide. ?But you know what, it's behind us and we just have to learn from it. It's a defeat, it's not a failure.?
Abbotsford won 11 straight games, including playoffs, before dropping four straight to Toronto. The Heat were ranked as high as second in the overall AHL standings at one point this season and as low as 11th in the Western Conference, but the goal was always to win the championship.
?I would say we fell short (of our goal),? said Heat head coach Troy Ward. ?We didn?t get to the Calder Cup finals but I thought we had a good push, especially at the end of the year. But we didn?t get to where we set out to where we wanted to be.?
The team?s playoff shortcomings could be pinned on special teams. The Heat?s penalty killing was among the best in the AHL most of the year but allowed two goals on five chances in Game 5, including the winner.
"We had a very good penalty kill for the whole series,??? said Testwuide, who was playing for Abbotsford on loan from the Chicago Wolves. ???You could look at it like it wasn't good tonight, but I wouldn't say that. It's just the way it turns out. They're going to get their chances, and they just ended up burying them now instead of earlier."
Meanwhile, their power play was even more lacking, 0-for-24 during the series, including 0-for-3 Wednesday.
???We got opportunities and didn???t bury them but they did," said Heat captain Clay Wilson. "That was kind of the story of the series.???
The club struggled with a few things this season that gave the Calgary Flames??? affiliate headaches throughout the year.
For one, the team???s geography in British Columbia???s Fraser Valley puts the club at a disadvantage, since the travel is much more gruelling. The nearest opponents are over 3,000 kilometres away, which makes coming back off a road trip just as difficult as playing away from home.
???Obviously there???s a lot of players within this league that don???t want to be here because it???s a long way,??? said Ward after Wednesday???s game. ???If you just look at it with travel alone, from a player???s perspective, they???re not crazy about coming here. It???s not as difficult as it seems but it is difficult.???
That???s an issue the Heat have been dealing with since the franchise was born out of the ashes of the Quad City Flames in 2009.
They???ve also struggled with poor attendance. After averaging only 3,545 over the regular season in a city of more than 130,000, they are last among the 16 playoff squads with an average of just 2,389 per game, including just a turnout of 1,360 for the elimination game Wednesday. The club struggles with playing in the shadow of the nearby NHL team ??? the Vancouver Canucks.
"Any time you play in front of a big crowd, it's nice,??? said Ward. "Obviously things take time to build any franchise in any area, no matter what part of the world you are in.???
The Peoria Rivermen, for example, boast an attendance average of over 5,000 per game in a city with 20,000 fewer citizens ??? and they were a non-playoff team. This is a team that recorded points in 16 of 17 games until losing four straight to the Marlies this month.
The Heat were also challenged by numerous injuries and call-ups to Calgary, which was among the NHL???s leaders in man games lost to injury. Not including goaltenders, the Heat were forced to dress 48 players throughout the course of the season, among the largest rosters in the AHL.
???Playing in this league you get used to it,??? said Wilson. ???Guys come back and sometimes it works in your favour when they have a little extra jump in their step and confidence. I can see as a coach it being extremely frustrating, but you???re always excited to get guys called up and when they come back you welcome them with open arms.???
So Abbotsford heads back to the drawing board, and some would speculate that they???ll be doing it without the services of Ward.
Calgary???s coach Brent Sutter was let go by the club and many members of the Calgary media are convinced that Ward is next in line for the head coaching job with the parent club. General Manager Jay Feaster has publicly come out and praised Ward???s work with the farm team this year. Ward has not commented one way or the other about interest in the position.
In the crease, the Heat may look very different in the new season as well.
Danny Taylor unseated Leland Irving as the team?????????s starting goalie late in the season and in the playoffs. Taylor has played all over the globe in the last few seasons and played his most games in a campaign this season, giving him a shot at a two-way contract with an NHL club in the fall.
Irving is considered the second best goalie in the organization after Mikka Kiprusoff and may find himself as an NHL backup next year, a position that he held for stretches this season in which he picked up his first NHL win.
The Flames also hold the rights to a pair of Finnish goalies, ex-Heat member Joni Ortio and former NHL goalie Kari Ramo. That doesn?????????t even include Swede Henrik Karlsson, who has been Kiprusoff?????????s backup the past two years.
"Danny's been the guy down the stretch,????????? said Ward when asked whether he still felt he made the right choice in goal. ?????????The AHL's a land of opportunity. Let's look at it this way. Leland's a tremendous goalie, and I have tremendous respect for that guy. Leland has also gotten the land of opportunity ????????? that put him in the NHL this year. But down the stretch, our better goalie and the guy who's made us feel a bit better as a team happened to be Danny. That's nothing against Leland."
Regardless, the Heat have a seven more seasons left on their deal with the city-owned Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, so they?????????re clearly not going anywhere.
?????????I felt we've found a home,????????? said Ward. ?????????I think people know we're here."