Last season, Billins was a key cog for the Griffins during their march to the Calder Cup, emblematic of the American Hockey League championship.
The high-scoring defenceman departed the Detroit Red Wings organization over the summer, lured by a two-way NHL/AHL contract from the Calgary Flames, and as of Friday – when the Heat host Game 1 of the best-of-five series against the Griffins (7 p.m., Abbotsford Centre) – he’ll be aiming to send his old Grand Rapids buddies to an early summer vacation.
“It’ll be a fun series,” Billins predicted with a grin following Tuesday’s practice. “Obviously there’s a lot of guys I played with last year still there . . . and of all the teams we could be matched up with, to play the team you won with last year is pretty crazy. It’s exciting.
“But it’s still going to be a game, and we’ve got to get ready to beat them.”
The Griffins have become one of the AHL’s most admired organizations in recent years – in addition to their Calder Cup success in 2013, they’re also renowned for cranking out quality players for the NHL parent Red Wings.
There are currently eight players from last year’s Grand Rapids championship team – forwards Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Luke Glendening, Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan and Joakim Andersson, and defencemen Danny DeKeyser and Brian Lashoff – on the Detroit roster as they clash with the Boston Bruins in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
Billins said that Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill (the AHL’s coach of the year for 2013-14) and his staff deserve a great deal of credit, and noted that Red Wings’ much-lauded organizational culture trickles down to Grand Rapids.
“It starts in Detroit with the big guys who come to work every day – leaders you can look up to,” he said. “Guys always talk about (Niklas) Kronwall, (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg and how hard they work, and it transfers right down through the organization. Guys realize that you’ve got to work hard every day.”
Billins and head coach Troy Ward both expect it to be a fast-paced series, with both teams proficient at putting the puck in the net – Grand Rapids was eighth in the AHL with 238 goals during the regular season, while the Heat (237) were right behind them in ninth.
“We’ve got to move the puck well and capitalize on our opportunities,” Billins said. “It should be a pretty fast-paced game – they definitely have some speed up front, and we do too.”
GOALIE MATCH-UP WILL BE A BEAUTY
The importance of goaltending in the playoffs can’t be understated, and the clash between the Heat’s Joni Ortio and his Griffins counterpart Petr Mrazek will be fascinating.
Last season, his first as a pro, Mrazek played every minute during Grand Rapids’ playoff run. The 22-year-old from the Czech Republic has been even better this season, posting a 22-9-1 record, a 2.10 goals against average (second-best in the AHL) and a .924 save percentage (third) en route to AHL second team all-star honours.
Ortio, a 23-year-old Finn, staged a breakthrough in his first full season in North America, going 27-8-0 with a 2.33 goals against average (sixth) and a .926 save percentage (second) en route to the Heat team MVP award and AHL all-rookie honours.
Both Mrazek (2-4-0, 1.74 GAA, .927 SV%) and Ortio (4-4-0, 2.51 GAA, .891 SV%) also tasted NHL action this season.
“They’re both calm and cool, they don’t get rattled too easily, they both can be aggressive,” Ward said. “And they’re very, very successful goalies. Obviously Mrazek has last spring under his belt.”
Asked how essential a deep playoff run is to Ortio’s development, Ward suggested it’s a plus, but not the be-all, end-all.
“It is a feather in your cap, for sure,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean it’s the final step, nor does it mean it’ll make or break whether he plays in the NHL.
“Ortio has two years of high-level European post-season going for him – it just wasn’t underneath the framework of our house. I think he has as much experience the last couple years as a guy a little further down the road. It’s just a little different.”
GRIFFINS TO WATCH
• RW Teemu Pulkkinen – The 22-year-old Finn, drafted in the fourth round by the Red Wings in 2010, excelled in his first season in North America, leading the Griffins in scoring (31-28-59 in 71 games) and earning AHL all-rookie honours.
• D Adam Almquist – Yet another potential late-round Scandinavian gem mined by the Red Wings, the 23-year-old Swede was drafted in the seventh round in 2009. He was an AHL second team all-star this season after finishing third in points (4-49-53 in 73 games) and first in assists among AHL defencemen.
• LW Jeff Hoggan – The 36-year-old Hope native, who captains the Griffins, is known for his gritty two-way game and has the ability to chip in offensively (14-17-31 in 59 games). The undrafted journeyman has carved out an impressive career in pro hockey, highlighted by 107 NHL games with the St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes.
• RW Landon Ferraro – The son of former NHLer and current broadcaster Ray Ferraro was a second-round selection by the Wings in 2009. He made his NHL debut this season, suiting up for four games with Detroit, and posted 15-16-31 in 70 games with Grand Rapids.
HEAD-TO-HEAD THIS SEASON
• Jan. 17: Heat 0 at Griffins 3 – Abbotsford out-shoots Grand Rapids 35-32, but backup goalie Tom McCollum posts a 35-save shutout.
• Jan. 18: Heat 3 at Griffins 2 – Max Reinhart pots a goal and two assists, Markus Granlund scores the game-winner, and Joni Ortio stops 31 of 33 shots as the Heat split the weekend series.
• Feb. 28: Griffins 4 at Heat 3 (SO) – The Heat, with a roster decimated by injuries and recalls, send the game to overtime on Reinhart’s goal with 3:53 left in regulation, but the Griffins prevail in the shootout with defenceman Gleason Fournier notching the winner.
• March 1: Griffins 5 at Heat 2 – Abby jumps out to a 2-0 lead on a pair of goals by Reinhart in the first period, prompting Blashill to remove McCollum in favour of Mrazek. Grand Rapids dominates from there, out-shooting the Heat 33-14 over the final 40 minutes and scoring five unanswered goals.
Power play: Abbotsford 21.9% (fourth in AHL); Grand Rapids 20.2% (seventh)
Penalty kill: Grand Rapids 85.7% (fifth); Abbotsford 79.4% (27th)
The Heat (43-25-8, 94 points) are coming in red-hot, having posted an 8-1-1 record in their past 10 games to clinch fifth place in the Western Conference.
The Griffins (46-23-7, 99 points), meanwhile, stubbed their collective toes down the stretch, going a pedestrian 5-4-1 in their last 10 games – including losses in three of their final four games. That enabled the Chicago Wolves to overtake them on the last day of the regular season to claim the Midwest Division title, and the Griffins slid from the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference to No. 4.
Game 1: Friday, April 25, Abbotsford Centre, 7 p.m.
Game 2: Saturday, April 26, Abbotsford Centre, 7 p.m.
Game 3: Wednesday, April 30, Van Andel Arena, 4 p.m.
*Game 4: Friday, May 2, Van Andel Arena, 4 p.m.
*Game 5: Saturday, May 3, Van Andel Arena, 4 p.m.
(All times Pacific, * = if necessary)