Quitting simply isn’t in the DNA of the Heat right winger, whose tireless work ethic has prompted head coach Troy Ward to nickname him Rudy, after the former Notre Dame walk-on football player of cinematic fame.
Ruegsegger scored a goal and an assist on Friday to power the Heat past the playoff-bound Toronto Marlies 3-0 before 6,503 paying customers on fan appreciation night at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
“It’s a privilege to play the game and it’s a privilege to be blessed with the talent to do something we love so anytime you touch the ice you owe an honest effort,” Ruegsegger reasoned afterward. “Our team has a lot of character in that.
“Even if we’re not in the playoffs, it means a lot to us that we finish strong. I was proud of us tonight.”
The North Division-leading Marlies came into Friday’s game needing a single point to secure a post-season berth, but they actually clinched mid-game thanks to the Rockford IceHogs’ 7-3 victory over the Chicago Wolves.
The Heat, meanwhile, continued their season-long dominance of Toronto – they’re now 5-1-1 on the season against the Maple Leafs affiliate.
Ruegsegger was the offensive catalyst, while Danny Taylor made 25 saves for his third shutout of the campaign.
Abbotsford also fashioned a nearly flawless performance in the special teams department – they went 2-for-3 on the power play while snuffing all six of Toronto’s man-advantage opportunities.
“The penalty kill did a great job,” Ruegsegger noted. “We took way too many penalties. Against a skilled team like Toronto, they’re not going to go 0-for-6 without eventually getting some quality chances.”
Ruegsegger gave the hosts the lead at 8:11 of the first period, taking a drop pass from Blair Jones on the rush and picking the bottom corner on Marlies goalie Drew MacIntyre.
He was instrumental in the Heat’s second goal, as well. On a power play midway through the middle frame, he pounced on a rebound off Brady Lamb’s initial shot and jammed away at it. The puck eventually squirted between MacIntyre’s pads, with Mike Testwuide getting credit for the goal.
Krys Kolanos made it 3-0 in the third period on a great individual effort. On a Heat power play, he treated Marlies defender Paul Ranger like a turnstile, beating him to the inside on the rush before chipping a cheeky little blocker-side shot past MacIntyre.
Friday’s game marked the Heat debuts for defenceman Mark Cundari (acquired in the Jay Bouwmeester trade last week) and centre Carter Rowney (signed to an amateur tryout contract out of the University of North Dakota).
Rowney showed some early jump on a line with Ben Walter and Greg Nemisz, while Cundari showcased a physical edge. He crossed the line a couple of times, picking up minor penalties for boarding and interference, but was a positive presence overall, picking up an assist on Kolanos’s goal.
“The first couple shifts for me were tough – I was getting my legs back, getting my wind,” said Cundari, who was coming off a wrist injury. “I’ve been working hard but you never really get ready for that game scenario until the game. It was more just getting my wits about me and after that it all started to fall into place.”
Ward said he expected a learning curve for Cundari in terms of picking up the Heat’s systems, but he was pleased with the energy he brought.
“He’s an old-school guy for a young-school kid,” the Heat bench boss said. “He plays like an old guy from the 70s and 80s. He’s got a little mix – there’s dirt underneath his fingernails, and the other hand has a glove on it and he’s real nice. Then the next two shifts he’s just a dog again, chewing the other guys rear end off between shifts. He’s just a throwback.”
The Heat (33-30-10, 76 points) and Marlies (40-22-9, 89 points) renew hostilities on Sunday afternoon (4 p.m., AESC) in Abbotsford’s final home game of the campaign.
Ward expects the effort level to be there from his side once again.
“To be honest with you, I think this group feels deprived of what they’re not going to get,” he said, alluding to the fact his team won’t be in the playoffs. “They were one of the best teams in the whole conference in January, but some things happened, some things fell out of control, we lost a lot of practice time and the wheels fell off.
“I think they’re still hungry to prove they belong somewhere, and I think that’s what happened tonight. They’re a very hungry team.”