Last summer in Abbotsford, Leland Irving and Brad Thiessen handled the goaltending chores for a group of local pros who skated together on a regular basis.
With the way both netminders have been rolling this season in the AHL, it’s safe to say those summer scrimmages were relatively low-scoring affairs.
Irving, the Abbotsford Heat’s starting keeper, and Thiessen, his counterpart with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, have been battling back and forth all season long at the top of the AHL goalie wins list.
Thiessen, an Aldergrove native who graduated from Abbotsford’s Mennonite Educational Institute, is in front at the moment with 27 victories – one up on Irving, who has 26.
“It was great,” Irving said after practice Wednesday, recalling those summer skates with Thiessen. “It was just the two of us as far as goalies out there, and we got to face a lot of shots and prepare for training camp.
“He’s really making a name for himself, and having a great year.”
Irving and Thiessen renew acquaintance this weekend, as the Heat host the Penguins in a Friday-Saturday set at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre (7 p.m. both nights).
Thiessen, a second-year pro, is the backbone of a Penguins team which has amassed an AHL-best 45-18-0-0 record while surrendering a league-low 146 goals. His 1.94 goals-against average is second-best in the league.
While the Penguins have their sights set on clinching home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, the Heat are fighting tooth and nail for a playoff berth with 15 games remaining in the regular season.
At 31-25-4-5, Abbotsford is fifth in the North Division, but they’re also only five points back of the first place Manitoba Moose.
“It’s going to be a battle the rest of the year,” Irving observed. “In a sense, I think it’s good for us, because it forces us to play playoff-type hockey right up until the playoffs start. By that time, we’ll be ready to go.”
The Heat are in fine form heading into the weekend, having cobbled together an impressive 3-1-1 record on last week’s road trip, which featured five games in six nights.
“The thing I was impressed about on the road trip was that we had a chance to win all five games,” Heat head coach Jim Playfair said. “I like the structure of our team game, I like our commitment to do things right.”
Heat forward Greg Nemisz, who suffered a lower body injury last week against the San Antonio Rampage, was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice after sitting out all three of Abbotsford’s weekend games.
“If it was a playoff game, he probably could have played all three games,” Playfair said. “We just felt it was a situation where if we took extra time, we’d be well-served with him.”
Stefan Meyer, who missed Sunday’s game against the Houston Aeros with a hip/back injury, did not skate Wednesday. He’s considered day-to-day.
BANCKS ON THE WAY BACK
Carter Bancks, who has been out since early December with a concussion, took part in several drills on Wednesday while wearing a yellow non-contact jersey.
“It was a tough few months, but being able to get on the ice now is awesome,” said Bancks, a rookie forward who has 12 points and a +6 rating in 18 games this season.
“I’ve been feeling good lately. I’ve been pushing myself in the gym, getting my heart rate up around 160, 170, and I’ve been doing all right. I’m hoping to continue to progress.”
Bancks was originally concussed during a Nov. 12 road game against the Providence Bruins, on a hit which earned Bruins defenceman Steven Kampfer a one-game suspension.
Bancks returned to the lineup for a Dec. 7 home game against the Lake Erie Monsters, and earned first star honours after scoring a goal. But just as quickly, he was back on the injured list with recurring symptoms.
“It’s my first concussion, and I might have made a mistake coming back and trying to play that game,” Bancks said. “It might have set me back.
“But I feel like I’m really starting to turn a corner here.”
CLEAR DAY PROCESS LACKS CLARITY: PLAYFAIR
The Heat’s 22-man clear day list, submitted Monday to the AHL, included long-term injured players like Bancks, Mitch Wahl and Kris Chucko, while omitting current contributors like Jon Rheault, Logan MacMillan and John Armstrong.
According to AHL by-laws, only those players listed on a team’s clear day roster are eligible for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. There’s an “emergency conditions” provision, though, where teams may use other players in the event of recall, injury or suspension. Thus, adding the injured players to the list gives the Heat plenty of flexibility.
“I don’t really understand it, to be quite honest with you,” Playfair said, speaking of the clear day list. “I don’t know the true value of it, other than they want you to have a solidified roster at this time of year. But it gets manipulated by everybody every year, so I think it causes creates more confusion in your dressing room than anything else.”
Mikael Backlund is perhaps the most interesting name on the Heat’s clear day roster. The sophomore centre has spent the season with the NHL parent Calgary Flames, save for a brief conditioning assignment with the Heat. His presence on the list ensures he’d be able to participate in the AHL playoffs if the Heat’s season runs longer than the Flames’.
Playfair offered a positive review of MacGregor Sharp, the centre obtained by the Heat in exchange for Keith Seabrook in a loan transaction with the Manitoba Moose last week.
“He’s a solid player, a responsible player at both ends of the rink,” Playfair said. “I think he does a solid job on the penalty kill, and he’s good on faceoffs.”
Through three games with Abbotsford, Sharp is still seeking his first point. He’s registered four shots on goal with an even plus-minus rating.