There are losses, there are tough losses, and then there are losses that make you feel like you’ve been punched square in the gut by a young Mike Tyson.
The Abbotsford Heat’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Hamilton Bulldogs on Tuesday evening was the latter.
In their final regular-season game of the year at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, the Heat fell behind on Nigel Dawes’s penalty shot goal at 11:32 of the first period.
The scoring-challenged Abbotsford squad battled tooth and nail to generate an equalizer, and finally got it when Ryan Stone tipped in Quintin Laing’s shot from the blue line with just 4:43 remaining in the third period.
But exactly a minute later, Bulldogs defenceman Kyle Klubertanz broke the Heat’s collective heart when he waltzed in from the blue line and flicked a cheeky backhander over Abby goalie Leland Irving’s blocker and under the crossbar.
“At this time of the year, with all that’s at stake, it really kills for that to happen,” Heat forward Jon Rheault observed afterward. “Especially when we clawed our way back – and we’re really proud of the way we did that. But any little mistake right now is our life.”
Indeed, the defeat represents a devastating blow to the Heat’s post-season hopes. A victory would have moved Abbotsford to within a point of the Oklahoma City Barons for the Western Conference’s crossover playoff spot.
As it stands, the Heat (37-30-4-6, 84 points) remain three points back of OKC with three games left in the regular season. Making matters worse, not only must they catch the Barons, they’ve also got to hurdle the Chicago Wolves (86 points) and San Antonio Rampage (85 points) to punch their playoff ticket.
Hamilton (42-27-2-7, 93 points) moved into a tie with the Manitoba Moose for first in the North Division, and clinched a post-season berth for themselves and the third-place Lake Erie Monsters.
The Heat hit the road for the last three games of the regular season – Friday at Grand Rapids, Saturday at Lake Erie, and Sunday at Toronto.
“We’ve got to win out here to give ourselves a chance,” Rheault said, succinctly pointing out the corner the Heat have been painted into. “I know our team, I know our character – I know we’ll bounce back from this. These three games have to be ours.”
Dawes opened the scoring after a Heat player gloved the puck in the crease during a goalmouth scramble. On the penalty shot, the Hamilton sniper came cruising in and squeezed a shot between Irving’s pads.
The goal was Dawes’s AHL-leading 41st of the season, and snapped Irving’s epic shutout streak at 132 minutes, 36 seconds.
Later in the period, the Heat had a great chance to knot the score when Ales Kotalik and Justin Dowling got away on a two-on-one break. Dowling’s pass across to Kotalik found his tape, but Bulldogs goalie Drew MacIntyre went right-to-left to rob Kotalik on the one-timer.
In the second period, Heat forwards MacGregor Sharp and John Armstrong distinguished themselves by throwing their bodies in front of Bulldogs slap shots in quick succession. Armstrong’s effort was particularly kamikaze in nature – he dove head-first in an effort to keep the puck from getting through.
The Heat also came up with a massive penalty kill, snuffing an extended two-man disadvantage after Joe Piskula (interference) and Laing (high-sticking) took penalties within three seconds of each other.
Abbotsford’s penalty kill has been lights-out lately, having not allowed a goal in the past six games while smothering 22 consecutive power plays opportunities.
Stone’s game-tying goal fired up the crowd of 4,884 at the AESC, but Klubertanz struck back on the very next shift.
“I thought we showed a lot of character – guys going down head-first to block shots, killing the five-on-three, coming back late in the game,” Laing said. “It’s really tough to give up that goal late in the game like that, with the points meaning what they do right now.
“We have no choice but to regroup.”
Spencer Bennett, a 20-year-old left winger from White Rock, made his pro hockey debut for the Heat on Tuesday. A fifth-round pick by the Calgary Flames in 2009, Bennett inked an amateur tryout contract with the Heat last week after his junior season with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants wrapped up. He drew into the lineup in place of Ryan MacMurchy, and posted one shot on goal and an even plus-minus rating in limited minutes.