The Heat had their ticket punched for them on Tuesday evening, as the Milwaukee Admirals beat the Rockford IceHogs 3-1. The defeat ensured that the IceHogs – on the wrong side of the Western Conference playoff bubble – wouldn’t be able to catch fifth-place Abbotsford.
And with that, the Heat are guaranteed to be the only pro hockey team in Western Canada to taste playoff hockey this season. The Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets are all headed for the golf courses once the NHL regular season wraps up on Sunday.
“We’ll have too much press – I’ll turn into a hermit,” Heat head coach Troy Ward joked.
With five regular season games remaining – including Friday (7 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.) home dates vs. the Oklahoma City Barons – Ward said his focus is on making sure his team is sharp system-wise and ready to roll once the playoffs start.
As it currently stands, the Heat (39-25-7, 85 points) would face the fourth-place Chicago Wolves in the first round, but if Milwaukee (35-23-13, 83 points) catches them for fifth in the conference, they’d play the third-seeded Toronto Marlies.
“We don’t look at these games any different than we would have without clinching the spot,” goalie Joni Ortio asserted. “Home ice advantage is a bit of a long shot at this point, but we still want to finish fifth at least. We’ve got to keep building the momentum and working on our game towards playoffs, so we’re ready when the puck drops for the first game.”
KLIMCHUK POISED FOR DEBUT
Left winger Morgan Klimchuk, a first-round draft choice (28th overall) by the Flames in 2013, was set to play his first pro games last weekend vs. Rockford, but a minor injury delayed that debut.
Ward said he’ll suit up on Friday vs. OKC, and he’s been skating on a line with Corey Locke and Brett Olson.
The Barons are expected to have a high-profile prospect of their own in the lineup – defenceman Darnell Nurse, who recently joined the squad after his junior season with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds ended. Nurse was the seventh overall pick in last June’s draft.
The NHL parent Flames wrap up their season on Sunday at the Vancouver Canucks, and four erstwhile Heat players will be staying behind in B.C. afterward
Forwards Markus Granlund and Ben Hanowski and blueliners Chad Billins and Chris Breen will rejoin Abbotsford for their final three-game road trip of the regular season and the subsequent playoff run.
“They’ll play on Sunday, and then they’ll come out here,” Ward confirmed.