The Abbotsford Heat’s regular season finale was meaningless as far as the standings were concerned, but it was a game Max Reinhart, David Eddy and Nick Tuzzolino won’t soon forget.
Reinhart and Eddy both notched their first professional goals, and Tuzzolino scored his second of the game at 1:08 of overtime to lift the Heat to a 5-4 triumph over the Toronto Marlies on Sunday afternoon at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
“The team was elated, that was the coolest thing,” Heat head coach Troy Ward said afterward, reflecting on the milestone goals for Reinhart and Eddy. “The character of this team and how they celebrated was pretty neat.”
Afterward, the Heat found out they’ll be facing the Milwaukee Admirals in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs – the Nashville Predators’ affiliate having locked up the Western Conference’s No. 5 seed with a 6-1 win over the Charlotte Checkers.
Milwaukee beat the Heat in three of four meetings this season, but Abbotsford is the Western Conference’s hottest team heading into the post-season, with an 8-0-1 record over the last nine games.
“We’ve had our struggles in Milwaukee this year,” Ward acknowledged. “They have really good stick skills, and obviously the way they pushed through at the end (to make the playoffs) is an indication of their ability.
“But it is a good match-up, in terms of the fact I think they’re a very good team. When you’re playing your very best hockey right now, you might as well play the best (team).”
With nothing to gain in the standings, Ward rested regulars Ben Walter, Krys Kolanos, Paul Byron, Dustin Sylvester, Jon Rheault, Clay Wilson and Brian Connelly on Sunday. That opened the door for forwards Reinhart and Turner Elson and blueliner Brady Lamb to make their AHL debuts.
Reinhart, a third-round draft choice by the Calgary Flames in 2010, is regarded as one of the NHL parent club’s most promising prospects. He wasted little time making his presence felt, opening the scoring at 9:37 of the first period.
On the rush, Hugh Jessiman’s wrist shot from the right wing handcuffed Marlies goalie Jussi Rynnas, and Reinhart lunged at the loose puck in the crease and poked it across the goal line.
Just over five minutes later, Eddy got his moment in the sun. Heat enforcer Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond did the heavy lifting, carrying the puck into the offensive zone with a Marlies defender draped all over him before firing a shot on goal. Rynnas kicked the puck into the slot right to Eddy, and the centre out of St. Cloud University, in his fourth game with the Heat, pounced all over it.
The Marlies came in with the AHL’s worst power play, with just a 14.0 per cent success rate, and they were an anemic 3-for-34 over their previous 10 games.
But they had a rare man-advantage explosion on Sunday, as Philippe Dupuis, Matt Frattin and Carter Ashton scored power-play goals as the Marlies rallied to knot the score 3-3 through 40 minutes.
Also in the second period, Reinhart picked up his second goal of the game. Jessiman dug the puck out deep in the Marlies zone and fed Reinhart in the slot, and he roofed a wrist shot.
Tuzzolino has spent the bulk of the campaign with the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies, but he’s carved out a niche with the Heat over the course of two recalls in the second half of the season.
He’s counted on as a stay-at-home type in the Heat’s third defence pairing with J.P. Testwuide, but he doubled his AHL career goal-scoring output on Sunday. His first came on the power play at 10:25 of the third.
Frattin’s second of the game forced OT, but in the extra session, Tuzzolino jumped into the play, took a pass from Greg Nemisz and picked the top corner over Rynnas’s blocker.
Reinhart, a Vancouver native whose father Paul spent two of his 11 NHL seasons with the Canucks, picked up first star honours.
“I got off to a good start,” noted Reinhart, who joined the Heat two weeks ago after his Kootenay Ice were knocked out of the WHL playoffs. “I got kind of a gift, I guess you could say, on the goal line, and I was able to just beat my D-man to the net and got it in.
“That gave me a lot of confidence as the game went on, and my two wingers (Jessiman and Adam Estoclet) were making passes right on the tape, which in junior you don’t always get. You have to be mentally sharp the whole game, and I thought I handled not knowing what to expect pretty well.”
Heat goalie Leland Irving, making his first start since March 30, turned aside 18 of 22 shots in the victory. He was away from the team for a few days last week after his wife gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter.
“I was really kind of excited it went to OT, because I wanted him to get as many minutes as he could,” Ward said. “A win elevates anybody’s spirits.
“At the end of the day, what was most important for him was that he got 60-plus minutes and got a feel for the puck again. Now he can look at some tape and make some adjustments with (goalie coach) Jordan Sigalet on some plays that he probably wants back.”
• After the game, the Heat hosted their annual Cuts for the Cure fundraiser in support of the B.C. Cancer Foundation. The event, which saw several Heat players and Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman shave their heads, raised over $30,000 for the charity.
• The Heat handed out their regular season awards on Sunday, and Clay Wilson was the big winner, taking the team MVP and top defenceman awards. Dustin Sylvester was named top rookie, Krys Kolanos was the fan’s choice award winner, and Carter Bancks was the community player of the year.
• The Heat-Admirals series schedule is as follows (all times Pacific):
Game 1: Abbotsford at Milwaukee, Friday, April 20, 5 p.m.
Game 2: Abbotsford at Milwaukee, Sunday, April 22, 3 p.m.
Game 3: Milwaukee at Abbotsford, Wednesday, April 25, 7 p.m.
*Game 4: Milwaukee at Abbotsford, Friday, April 27, 7 p.m.
*Game 5: Milwaukee at Abbotsford, Saturday, April 28, 7 p.m.