The Abbotsford Heat and Utica Comets find themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum heading into a pair of weekend games at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
The Heat are atop the AHL overall standings with 35 points, having won 13 of their past 14 games. They’ve amassed their 17-5-1 record in entertaining fashion – their youthful roster cranks out an average of 3.39 goals per game, the sixth-best mark in the league.
The Comets, meanwhile, find themselves mired in last place overall in the AHL at 4-11-2. The Vancouver Canucks’ freshly minted farm team – purchased last spring as the Peoria Rivermen and subsequently moved to upstate New York after a brief flirtation with Abbotsford – averages a league-worst 2.12 goals per game.
Utica opened the season on a 10-game losing streak, but are taking steps in the right direction, having won four of their last seven games.
Heat head coach Troy Ward puts little stock in the standings disparity.
“What they (Utica) have more than us is they have more experience, and that’s dangerous,” Ward noted after Thursday’s practice. “It’s like I told the team today – do you respect your grandfather? Yes, you do. So you respect this team. They’re bigger than you, they’re older than you, they’re more mature than you.”
HEAT ROSTER THINNED BY RECALLS, INJURIES
The Comets’ experience edge over the Heat expanded this week, as forwards Max Reinhart and Paul Byron and defenceman Chris Breen were recalled by the NHL parent Calgary Flames.
Abbotsford was already hurting for depth on the blue line, as Brady Lamb (foot laceration), Tyler Wotherspoon (concussion) and Mark Cundari (neck/back) joined Patrick Sieloff (lower body) on the injured list during the Heat’s recent seven-game road trip.
Additionally, centre Markus Granlund missed Thursday’s practice due to illness.
To fill those holes, the Heat recalled four players from their ECHL affiliate, the Alaska Aces – forwards Peter Sivak and David Eddy, and defencemen Kane Lafranchise and James Martin.
Ward took his group aside for a pep talk during Thursday’s practice, exhorting the players moving up the depth chart to make the most of the opportunity.
“I like to be told I can’t do something,” Ward said. “The mindset today was, we lost Byron before practice and we lost Reinhart the day before . . . We’ll just plug new people into the system and it’ll just keep rolling like a machine.
“That doesn’t mean we’ll win, but I guarantee I think we’re ready to play, even though we’re a bit tired.”
ARSENE INKS NEW CONTRACT
When Dean Arsene was voted captain by his Heat teammates three weeks ago, it set up something of an awkward situation contract-wise, since the defenceman was only on a 25-game professional tryout (PTO) deal.
That uncertainty was cleared up earlier this week, when the 33-year-old defenceman signed an AHL contract that will keep the Abbotsford Minor Hockey product in Heat colours for the balance of the season.
“I’m ecstatic,” Arsene said. “I wasn’t banking on it just because my teammates named me captain. There’s no sure things in sport.
“It was just about getting a tryout (with the Heat in training camp), turning it into a PTO, and turning it into a contract. I’m glad it worked out.”
CANUCKS AFFILIATE A BOON TO ATTENDANCE
A visit from the Vancouver farm team – easily the most popular draw among opposing teams for obvious reasons – is a welcome sight for the Heat, who are off to the slowest start attendance-wise in their five-year history. They’re last in the AHL with an average crowd of 2,191 fans per game, which is more than 400 back of the Albany Devils, who sit 29th out of 30 on the attendance register.
Over the franchise’s previous four seasons in Abbotsford, the Canucks affiliate, in its previous iterations as the Manitoba Moose (2009-11) and the Chicago Wolves (2011-13), has played before an average crowd of 6,246 fans per game at the AESC. That includes five sellout crowds (just over 7,000) in 16 games.
“It’s really a good time for us to have Utica come in,” acknowledged Heat president Ryan Walter, whose team ranked 28th in the league with an average crowd of 3,778 in 2012-13. “Certainly our team, on-ice, has been spectacular, and I think with Utica, we should be able to get some real good momentum.”
The Heat started slowly in terms of attendance this fall – the 3,413 fans they drew for their first regular season home game on Oct. 11 vs. the Milwaukee Admirals was a franchise low for a home opener. The fact it was Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, with sunny weather outside to boot, didn’t help matters.
“We saw people drive right past our exit and drive up to the cabin,” Walter noted wryly.
Furthermore, the Heat haven’t gotten as much exposure in the Vancouver media this fall as they did last season, when the NHL labour dispute was going on. Having the Comets in town will change that, though.
Of course, with the Canucks switching affiliate teams for the third time in five years, there’s a certain amount of education that has to happen among the local fan base.
“We’ve actually had people purchase Chicago (Wolves) tickets, and then come back to us and said, ‘Hold it, I thought this was the Canuck affiliate,'” Walter related. “That is happening, but maybe not as much as we thought it might happen.”
CORRADO HEADLINES COMETS ROSTER
The Comets feature a pair of the Canucks’ top prospects in defenceman Frank Corrado and right winger Nicklas Jensen.
Corrado, who joined the Canucks late last season and suited up for four playoff games vs. the San Jose Sharks, has two goals and two assists in 17 games.
Jensen, Vancouver’s first-round draft choice in 2011, is off to a slow start coming off a shoulder injury suffered in the preseason, and he’s still looking for his first goal (with just two assists) in 11 games.
Forwards Pascal Pelletier (Utica’s top scorer with 14 points in 13 games) and Darren Archibald and blueliner Yannick Weber are among the current Comets who have played for the Canucks this season, and Utica also recently added veteran centre Cal O’Reilly to boost their offence.
O’Reilly, who has two assists in three games thus far, is a proven playmaker at the AHL level – Heat fans might remember him as a member of the Milwaukee Admirals – and he has 113 NHL games to his credit with the Nashville Predators, Phoenix Coyotes and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Left winger Colin Stuart, who played for the Heat during the club’s inaugural season of 2009-10, is the Comets’ captain and has four goals and an assist in 15 games.
KIRK MCLEAN SIGNING ON FRIDAY
The Heat and Comets clash on Friday and Saturday at the AESC (7 p.m. both nights). Former Canucks star goaltender Kirk McLean will be on hand to sign autographs at Friday’s game, as part of the Heat’s Legends of Hockey series of promotions.