The Abbotsford Heat weren’t supposed to have this much success, this soon.
Maybe they’re just too young to know any better.
This particularly peachfuzz-laden edition of the Heat has been together for just 16 games, but they’ve already managed to tie the franchise’s regular-season record for consecutive wins.
They racked up their seventh in a row on Sunday, beating the Toronto Marlies 6-3 at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, and find themselves atop the AHL’s overall standings with an 11-4-1 record for 23 points.
Granted, the Heat are tied for the most games played in the league at this early juncture of the season, and Sunday’s win was the first in the streak that was by more than one goal, so to paint them as a juggernaut isn’t entirely accurate.
But give this group credit – despite the fact that a large segment of the roster is still acclimatizing themselves to pro hockey, they’re finding ways to win. There’s a sense of calm about them, and a confidence in their collective ability to generate offence when it’s absolutely needed.
Take Sunday’s game. The Heat were decisively the better team over the first 30 minutes of regulation, and built a 3-1 lead on goals by Chad Billins, Ben Street and Corban Knight. Knight’s strike, a top-shelf laser beam of a wrist shot on the rush, blew up a bottle of red Gatorade on top of the Marlies net (see photo, bottom of page), leaving the area behind the cage looking like a crime scene for the balance of the second period.
The Marlies, though, rallied to tie – Trevor Smith scored on a five-on-three just past the midway point of the second, and Jerry D’Amigo leveled the score at 6:10 of the third when he swatted home a bouncing puck on a chaotic goalmouth sequence.
But the Heat stuck with it, and pumped in three goals in the last eight minutes.
Brett Olson snapped the tie during a stretch of four-on-four hockey, finishing off a tic-tac-toe passing play that began with a nice rush by defenceman Tyler Wotherspoon, who laid it off to Knight, who in turn found Olson with a cross-ice pass for the tap-in.
Markus Granlund, with his fifth goal in seven games, gave the Heat some insurance. Hauled down after being sent in alone by Paul Byron, the Finnish rookie made short work of Marlies goalie Garret Sparks on the ensuing penalty shot, whipping a quick shot between his legs.
Michael Ferland, with his fourth point in two weekend wins vs. Toronto, rounded out the scoring with an empty-net goal, while goalie Joey MacDonald made 24 saves for his second win in two starts with Abbotsford.
“It’s a fun locker room right now,” Billins acknowledged with a grin afterward. “The guys are definitely on the up. But you know what, everyone realizes that you’ve got to come prepared every day. Win or lose the day before, you’ve got to kind of erase that and come refocused every day and come to work.”
Olson echoed the notion that the Heat are working to ward off complacency.
“We look back at each game and know where we haven’t done so well in certain areas, and known that we’ve been lucky to win some in this streak,” he admitted.
“We’re happy with where we’re at, we’re happy with how we’ve been doing. But we’ve just got to keep it all in perspective and learn from each game, and maintain that confidence that when we get in tight situations like this, that we can win. That’s something that sits well with both the coaches and the players right now.”
Billins, a defenceman, notched his team-high sixth goal of the season late in the first period when he pinched in from the point to clean up a juicy rebound off Greg Nemisz’s initial shot.
The second-year pro is coming off a stint with the Calgary Flames that saw him make his NHL debut on Nov. 5 vs. the Minnesota Wild, and notch two assists in two games before being sent back down on Saturday.
He was terrific both nights vs. the Marlies – he picked up an assist and was on the ice for three of the Heat’s four goals in a 4-3 win Saturday, and he was +3 on Sunday.
“That was definitely a special time,” Billins said, reflecting on his first NHL stint. “It’s something you dream of, to be able to play your first game . . . I was able to have my family there in Minnesota.
“It was definitely a great experience, and I tried to learn as much as I could while I was up there. But coming back down here, I think the guys welcomed me right back in, and it felt good to get a couple wins this weekend.”
Heat head coach Troy Ward noted that the 24-year-old Billins, who played four years at Ferris State University and helped the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins win the Calder Cup last year, is somewhat more mature than most second-year pros.
“He’s got some poise to his game and a little bit of understanding of what it takes and I think he’s brought that,” Ward said. “I didn’t expect him to play quite as good as he did this weekend.
“Chad responded to the minutes he was given and did a nice job and complimented (rookie D-man John) Ramage really well.”
• The Heat’s forward lines and defence pairings on Sunday were as follows.
• The Heat now embark on a seven-game road trip, beginning on Wednesday at the Texas Stars.
“It’s going to be a long one,” Billins noted. “But you know, it’s fun too. It’s a good time to really build up the team bonding. You really get to know some of the guys a little bit better than you would playing at home all the time. It’s going to be a battle, but you’ve just got to take it one game at a time. We’ve got to pull off some wins here.”
A second-period shot by Heat forward Corban Knight beat Marlies goalie Garret Sparks and destroyed a water bottle containing red Gatorade on top of the net. (Clint Trahan / Abbotsford Heat photo)