When the Abbotsford Heat signed Justin Dowling to an amateur tryout contract last week, a clause was written in whereby the team was required to fly the Cochrane, Alta. native’s parents out for a game.
It turned out to be a solid investment for the Heat.
Dowling’s parents landed in Abbotsford on Saturday afternoon, and they were on hand to watch their son score the lone goal in the Heat’s 1-0 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
It was first professional goal for the 20-year-old centre, who recently wrapped up his junior hockey career with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos.
“It’s unbelievable,” Dowling said with a grin afterward. “My parents came down, so it feels kind of surreal getting it in front of them. It’s a great feeling, that’s for sure.”
Dowling’s memorable moment came at 2:31 of the third period. On a Heat power play, Tyler Ruegsegger made a slick cross-crease feed to Dowling, who had come charging to the net from the side wall. The rookie, playing just his third AHL game, made no mistake, swatting the puck emphatically past Griffins goalie Jordan Pearce.
Big as the goal was for Dowling on a personal level, it was just as important for his new team. The Heat desperately needed to sweep both weekend games against the Griffins to maintain their playoff aspirations, and they got the job done.
Abbotsford (36-29-4-6, 82 points) leapfrogged both the Toronto Marlies and the Griffins to claim sole possession of fourth place in the North Division.
The Peoria Rivermen, the fifth-place team in the West Division, are still in position to claim the North’s fourth and final playoff berth in the crossover format, though. The Rivermen (39-29-3-5) are four points up on the Heat with four games remaining on their schedule, but Abbotsford has a game in hand.
“We’ve shown all year we’ve got a ton of character in this room,” Heat goalie Leland Irving pointed out. “It’s no surprise we’re scratching and clawing and doing everything we can to hang on and earn ourselves a spot in the playoffs.”
Irving sparkled on Saturday, making 22 saves for his sixth shutout of the season. Heat head coach Jim Playfair termed the netminder’s performance “impressive.”
“He’s proved he can play like a No. 1 (goalie) for two games now and given us a chance,” Playfair said of Irving, who returned to the Heat lineup on Friday after missing five games with a groin injury.
The Heat got off to a solid start on Saturday, registering five of the first six shots on goal. But the Griffins found some traction at that point, and out-shot the hosts 8-1 for the balance of the first period.
Grand Rapids continued to carry the play early in the middle frame and tested Irving on several occasions, but the Heat keeper was up to the task. The Swan Hills, Alta. native made a slick glove save on Ilari Filppula, then came up with a pad stop on Joakim Andersson on a partial breakaway to keep the game scoreless through 40 minutes.
Dowling finally broke the ice early in the third period, and Irving carried the Heat home from there. He made several huge stops on scrambles around the Abbotsford goal, including an acrobatic glove save on Griffins forward Gustav Nyquist.
The transition from junior to pro can be difficult, but Dowling is handling it with aplomb. In the third period, Playfair promoted to youngster to the top line for a couple of shifts alongside Ales Kotalik and Carter Bancks.
“He had a lot of energy tonight, and he was pretty calm and cool with the puck,” Heat captain Quintin Laing said of Dowling. “It was one of those games where we were really trying to gut it out, hoping for a bounce to get a goal. He provided a lot of spark, a lot of playmaking for us.
“He was playing with Kotalik there, and he didn’t look nervous at all. That says a lot about his confidence.”
The Heat host their final home games of the regular season on Monday and Tuesday, as they welcome the Hamilton Bulldogs to the AESC.
CUTS FOR THE CURE
After the game, the Heat hosted a “Cuts for the Cure” fundraiser on the ice at the AESC, in support of the BC Cancer Foundation. The event, organized by the players’ wives and girlfriends, gave fans the opportunity to wield the clippers and shave a player’s head for a minimum $500 donation.
By the time the festivities were over, even Playfair found himself a little thinner on top. A fan offered $1,000 if the Abbotsford bench boss would allow his locks to be clipped, and the Heat players chipped in to match that sum.
Irving, who survived a bout with a form of cancer known as rhabdomyosarcoma when he was eight year old, said he was overwhelmed by the support from the community.
“Even if we’ve changed the lives of one person, we’ve accomplished our goal,” he said. “I’m proud of the way everything’s come together.”