The Abbotsford Heat‘s playoff chances have been slimmer than Kate Moss for a couple weeks already, and the Chicago Wolves officially ended any lingering suspense in that department on Wednesday night.
The Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate, by virtue of their 3-2 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins, snuffed any hope that the Heat would be able to hurdle their way from 11th place in the Western Conference into a top-eight playoff slot.
But there are still four games remaining in the regular season, and don’t try telling Heat head coach Troy Ward there’s nothing left for his charges to play for.
Some prospects are jockeying for position on the organizational depth chart, while others are playing for contracts for next season, and evaluation doesn’t stop just because the playoffs are out of reach.
“We have 20 different reasons to play tomorrow – we have 20 different players playing for something,” Ward said Thursday, as his team prepared for a Friday-Sunday home set with the Toronto Marlies.
“The one thing about being a pro is, you’re your own personal businessman and you represent your own company. If you don’t do well, it’s a tough business to earn a living in.”
With the playoffs out of reach, the door is open for Ward to give a look-see to younger players, like recent amateur tryout signees Carter Rowney (a forward out of the University of North Dakota) and Connor Hardowa (a defenceman out of the University of New Hampshire).
Roster numbers seem to indicate Rowney will see game action before Hardowa does. With Roman Horak, Max Reinhart and Sven Baertschi recently being recalled by the Calgary Flames, Abbotsford currently has just 12 healthy forwards – 13 if you count Paul Byron, who is skating with the Heat but is technically on the Flames’ injured reserve as he rehabs a broken left hand.
The Heat have nine healthy D-men, which makes Hardowa’s path to playing time a little more complicated.
Rowney, a Sexsmith, Alta. native whose 27 points in 41 games during his senior season at North Dakota were fourth-most on the team, said he’d be thrilled if Ward tapped him for his pro debut on Friday.
“I’ve put in a lot of planning and a lot of hard work to get to this point,” he said. “I’m a little nervous, but at the same time, very excited.
“I’m just going to try to keep it simple, work hard and hopefully things will come.”
TRADE ACQUISITION CUNDARI PRIMED FOR DEBUT
Along with the NCAA newbies, Ward has other lineup options this weekend as veteran players return to health.
Defenceman Mark Cundari, acquired from the St. Louis Blues in the Jay Bouwmeester deal at the NHL trade deadline, has recovered from a right wrist injury he’d sustained prior to the trade.
Forward Mike Testwuide, who hurt his hand in a fight with the Hamilton Bulldogs’ Kyle Hagel on March 27, is also poised to return.
Even Byron, while still technically still on the Flames’ IR, is a candidate to play this weekend, though Ward indicated he might elect to err on the side of caution in his case.
“Because Cundari and Testwuide come by way of trade, there’s a little more urgency to see what they can do,” Ward said. “Paulie’s an asset we have, and we don’t want to speed that asset up too much . . . It would be different if our (playoff) lives were on the line.”
Cundari will wear No. 14 with the Heat – he’d been wearing No. 15 with the Peoria Rivermen prior to the trade, but his ex-junior hockey teammate Greg Nemisz already had that number in Abbotsford.
“I tried to get him to opt out of it, but he’s stubborn and wanted to stick with it,” chuckled Cundari, who was part of back-to-back Memorial Cup-winning Windsor Spitfires teams with Nemisz in 2009 and 2010. “So I settled on 14 . . . I just had to be ahead of him by one.
“But other than that, he’s a good guy and I’m glad to be playing with him again. He’s definitely a lifelong friend.”
Cundari, picked for the AHL all-star game this season, said it was “definitely neat” to be involved in a blockbuster trade involving a player of Bouwmeester’s stature.
The Flames may want to take a look at him at the NHL level sooner than later – Calgary general manager Jay Feaster told calgaryflames.com last week that he planned to summon Cundari as soon as he was healthy.
“It is exciting,” Cundari acknowledged. “I want to make the most of my opportunity, when and if I do get it. I’m looking forward to playing these next two games here and making a mark for myself here in Abbotsford, and if I do happen to get called up to the big team, to make my mark there as well.”
BYRON SAVOURS FATHERHOOD
Byron’s stint with the Flames this season was truncated by some terrible luck – he broke his left hand on the fourth shift of his first game in Calgary silks on Feb. 13 vs. the Dallas Stars, courtesy of a slash from Derek Roy (since traded to the Canucks).
But as injuries go, the timing could hardly have worked out better for Byron. On March 11, he became a first-time father with the arrival of daughter Elianna. The Flames had graciously sent him to Abbotsford to rehab, so he was able to be there for the birth.
“That was probably one of the positives of the injury,” Byron said, acknowledging the silver lining. “I got to be here in Abbotsford and spend every minute with her.
“It’s a lot of fun.”
Byron would love to get into the lineup this weekend, but he’s on board if Ward elects to take things slow with his recovery.
“It sucks being on the sidelines and watching your team,” he said. “But at the same time, I want to look to my career. It’s already been eight weeks, so if I have to wait a couple extra days to make sure it’s fully healed, then that’s what I’ll have to do. I don’t want any more setbacks.”
MCKELVIE’S THE MAN
Defenceman Zach McKelvie was named the Heat’s winner of the IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award.
The honour recognizes McKelvie’s outstanding contributions to the community during the 2012-13 season. The 28-year-old blueliner made numerous school appearances with mascot Hawkey as part of the Heat’s reading program, Hawkey’s Hot Readers. He also helped raise $2,300 for charity by participating in the Heat’s first annual player vs. trainer fitness challenge, and was a post-game speaker at the team’s Faith Night promotion.
McKelvie, a New Brighton, Minn. native, is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and was on active duty in the army for two years (2009-11), serving as an infantry officer at Fort Benning, Ga.
In light of that experience, Ward said it’s no surprise that McKelvie would win a service-oriented award.
“His whole life has been based on leadership and deliverance and standards and excellence, saving other members of the army from dying,” the Heat bench boss noted. “He’s wired to win the award . . . I’m extremely excited for him.”
McKelvie is one of 30 finalists for the AHL’s Yanick Dupre Memorial Award, which honours the overall man of the year.
HOCKEY LEGEND SITTLER IN TOWN
The Heat’s final home weekend of the regular season coincides with their last of three Legends of Hockey promotions.
Darryl Sittler, a Toronto Maple Leafs legend and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, will be signing autographs until 30 minutes prior to puck drop on Friday. Earlier this season, the Heat brought in Vancouver Canucks alumni Cliff Ronning and Geoff Courtnall (Oct. 19) and Montreal Canadiens great Yvon Cournoyer (Nov. 30).
Friday is also the final “Loonie, Toonie, Dog N Brew” night ($1 hot dogs, $2 beer) of the season and will see over 1,000 prizes given away as part of fan appreciation night. Additionally, the Heat wives and girlfriends are hosting a silent auction to raise funds for the Abbotsford branch of the BC Cancer Foundation.
Friday’s game vs. the Marlies starts at 7 p.m. at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, while Sunday’s finale is at 4 p.m.