For the first few years of his pro hockey career Akim Aliu struggled to fit in, but he’s found a home with the Abbotsford Heat.
The most recent evidence of the burly (6’3″, 220 pound) winger’s growth came on Wednesday evening, as he scored twice to lead the Heat to a clinical 4-1 triumph over the Houston Aeros before 3,520 fans at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
“The neat thing is . . . he’s scored nine goals as a checker,” Heat head coach Troy Ward said of Aliu. “That says a lot about his development right now, and we’re really happy with him.”
Aliu became a member of the Heat on Boxing Day 2011, when the Winnipeg Jets loaned him to Abbotsford. He’d spent most of the fall and winter at home in Toronto after a falling-out with the Jets during training camp.
Upon his arrival, Aliu – a former second-round pick by the Chicago Blackhawks originally touted for his scoring potential – was told by Ward that he needed to learn to excel in a checking role before he’d be entrusted with more offensive responsibility.
To that end, Ward has made Aliu a fixture on the Heat’s third line, centered by captain Quintin Laing. The youngster has embraced the role and benefitted from Laing’s wisdom, while chipping in offensively.
His two goals on Wednesday gave him nine for the season, and they were pretty ones, as well. Aliu opened the scoring at 10:11 of the first period, after linemate Ryan Howse forced a neutral-zone turnover. Aliu came swooping in and unleashed a wrist shot that was blocked by Aeros goalie Matt Keetley, but he tracked down his own rebound and backhanded it home.
In the second period, with the Heat leading 2-1, Heat blueliner Chris Breen made a lovely lead pass to Aliu, who turned on the afterburners to split the Aeros’ defence and break in alone on Keetley. He snapped a shot between Keetley’s legs to mark the end of the former Heat keeper’s night – he was relieved by backup Joe Fallon.
Nick Tuzzolino and Hugh Jessiman also scored for the Heat, while Joel Broda was the lone Houston shooter to solve Abbotsford netminder Leland Irving.
Afterward, Aliu said that the NHL parent Calgary Flames’ decision to trade for his permanent rights – the Flames sent defenceman John Negrin to the Jets on Jan. 30 – went a long way toward helping him find a comfort zone.
“It made me feel a part of the team – not that I wasn’t part of the team in the beginning, but they reiterated their confidence in me moving forward,” explained Aliu, 22. “Every day I’m getting more and more comfortable. It’s the best group of guys I’ve been around.
“The biggest thing about this team is, there’s no older guys hanging out with older guys, and younger guys hanging out with younger guys. Everything’s really built as a team.”
Aliu has suited up for eight teams since becoming a full-time pro in 2009-10, and was considered a bit of an enigma at other stops. His metaphorical toolbox was loaded with tools, but he often misplaced the key to unlock it.
“I think he’s developing as much off the ice as he is on the ice,” Ward analyzed. “He’s becoming a real good teammate, he’s a reliable guy in the room.
“He continues to grow up, and as he continues that process, sometimes we look at his output on the rink as the main factor if you’re going to have traction. But in life, you don’t have traction unless you become a good person, and he’s becoming a good man. The foundation was there in the past, but it wasn’t forefront.”
The other upbeat story to emerge from the Heat’s Wednesday win was the strong play of Irving, who stopped 25 of 26 shots. He’s essentially established himself as the No. 2 goalie in the Flames organization – the NHL club has recalled him several times in recent weeks to make spot starts in relief of Miikka Kiprusoff.
But with the thrill of occasional NHL employment has come a significant travel grind, and Irving struggled mightily in the Heat’s 7-6 shootout loss to the Aeros on Tuesday morning. He was pulled in the second period after allowing five goals on 20 shots.
“I gave him some time to stew on his own (after being pulled Tuesday), and then I asked him how it went,” Ward recounted. “He said, ‘Not very good.’ I said, ‘Thanks, I saw that.'”
Irving said that splitting time between the Heat and Flames has been “an adjustment.”
“It’s a lot of travel, and adjusting to the speed of the game is a challenge as well,” he said. “It’s been a great experience, though, to get up there and get some time with the big club. Coming back, I feel like I have more time (on the ice), and I feel like I’m in control a little more, which is only for the better.”
The regulation win allowed the Heat (32-22-3-3, 70 points) to move four points clear of Houston (27-19-3-9) as the teams jockey for Western Conference playoff positioning. The Heat are fourth in the conference, while Houston is eighth.
“That was as good a game as we’ve managed, with discipline and with X’s and O’s, in a really long time, especially here at home,” Ward summarized.
• The Heat host a two-game home set this weekend, as the Peoria Rivermen visit the AESC on Friday (7 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.).
Heat forward Carter Bancks protects the puck against pressure from Houston’s C.J. Stretch. (Amy Williams Photography)