The Abbotsford Heat are the hottest team in the AHL’s Western Conference at the moment, and the genesis of their current streak coincides with the formation of a new top line.
In the wake of a 6-1 home loss to the San Antonio Rampage on March 24, head coach Troy Ward shuffled his forward units. He had little to lose by rejigging the lineup – the Heat were, at the time, the AHL’s lowest-scoring outfit, mustering just 2.37 goals per game.
Ward ended up slotting leading goal-scorer Krys Kolanos alongside a pair of diminutive speedsters, centre Paul Byron and left winger Dustin Sylvester, and the trio found instant chemistry.
It’s no coincidence the Heat are 6-0-1 since their union – the team is averaging 4.57 goals per game during that stretch, nearly double its previous level of production.
Kolanos, in particular, is playing out of his mind – he’s hit the scoresheet in each of the seven games, bookended by a pair of five-point outbursts. He collected a pair of AHL honours this week – the league’s player of the week award, and the reGen/AHL performance of the month award.
“They’ve been unbelievable, both of those guys,” Kolanos said of Byron and Sylvester. “Their games are firing on all cylinders, and I think the best thing is that we play with pace and tempo. When you can do that consistently in this league, you’re going to get results. I’ve got to give them all the credit.”
Kolanos had just six points over his previous 14 AHL games (with a recall to the Calgary Flames in the middle), but he’s notched 18 points (11-7-18) and a +12 rating during his current seven-game points streak.
He believes his training regimen has contributed to his rejuvenation. In the fall, he mapped out a season-long workout plan with trainer Adam Wood of White Rock, with the goal of peaking as playoff time approached.
“It’s not something that’s just happened – it’s been a work in progress, because it’s about how you finish,” explained Kolanos, who has been very focused with his physical training after missing all of last season due to major hip surgery.
“It’s been a critical juncture (for the team). A couple weeks ago we were in ninth, and now we’re sitting in fourth.
“It’s been very important that we’re moving things in the right direction. I don’t think we’re necessarily where we want to be, but we’re getting closer.”
FATHERHOOD AGREES WITH IRVING
The Heat’s last four wins have come despite the absence of usual No. 1 goalie Leland Irving, whose wife Ashley gave birth to the couple’s first child last Thursday.
The Irvings welcomed a daughter, Halle Annie (eight pounds, five ounces), and the new daddy was sporting an ear-to-ear grin after Wednesday’s practice.
“It’s amazing – it’s still hard to believe I’m a dad,” Irving marveled. “We’ve got a beautiful baby girl at home, and my wife is doing great. I couldn’t be happier.”
Irving didn’t make the Heat’s road trip to Charlotte, N.C. last week, but he’s eager to get back to game action. And while most new parents tend to be sleep-deprived, he said he’s actually feeling reasonably rested.
“Ashley and I are kind of taking turns doing things, so that helps,” he said. “Days where I’m getting up early, she’ll take care of the baby at night, and we’re working to find a good balance that works for both of us.”
It’s been an exciting but tumultuous stretch for Irving, who has bounced back and forth between Abbotsford and the NHL parent Calgary Flames during the second half of the season, while balancing the stress of impending fatherhood.
“It’s been tough, and obviously I haven’t really been happy with where my game’s at,” noted Irving, who posted a 4-4-1 record with a 3.55 goals against average and an .875 save percentage in the month of March.
“But I feel good on the ice, and it’s coming. . . . It’s time to really bear down and just be sharp every time I’m on the ice. This is the time of year where everybody comes to play.”
ALIU IN GRATEFUL SPIRITS
Last week, Akim Aliu supplied an upbeat story during an otherwise dreary time for the Calgary Flames, making a stellar NHL debut as the Flames wrapped up a playoff-free season.
The 22-year-old winger notched two goals and an assist as the Flames played out the string with victories over the Vancouver Canucks and the Anaheim Ducks.
On Wednesday morning, when the Heat reconvened for practice, Aliu spent several minutes at the end of the session working on his stick skills with Ward, corralling passes from the Heat bench boss in the slot and firing off quick shots.
It was an on-ice reflection of the mentoring role Ward has served for Aliu off the ice. The youngster arrived in Abbotsford in December with a high-maintenance reputation, but he’s resurrected his career in short order.
“A lot of the thanks has to go to the coaching staff and my teammates for giving me an opportunity to come here and keep my career rolling,” said Aliu, who termed his star turn in Calgary an “incredible” experience.
“Troy was unbelievable to me. He kind of took it as his goal and his mission to help me turn things around, and I’ve had great teammates here who have helped me out a ton. I’m really appreciative to them – without them, none of this could have happened.”
PATTERSON BACK IN TOWN
With the Utah Grizzlies, Abbotsford’s ECHL affiliate, being eliminated from the playoffs last week, the Heat recalled centre Gaelan Patterson on Monday.
Patterson has suited up for 56 games with the Heat this season, notching one goal and five assists while primarily centering the fourth line.
With Patterson’s recall, the Heat now have 35 players on the roster.
GOALS TOUGH TO COME BY VS. MARLIES
The Heat are already assured of a spot in the post-season, but they’ve still got work to do this weekend in their final two regular season games against the Toronto Marlies.
The Maple Leafs’ affiliate is in town for Friday (7 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.) dates at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, and the Heat need just two points to secure fourth place in the Western Conference and home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
The Marlies figure to be an ideal opponent in terms of warming up for the post-season – the Western Conference’s second-place squad is the stingiest defensive team in the entire league, having allowed just 167 goals this season (2.26 per game).
“We stress a defence-first mentality here,” Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins said. “We want to contest the puck wherever it is when the other team has it.
“The second part is to have the puck and hang onto it. You’re never going to see the other team score when you have it. So we’ve really challenged our team to be a really strong cycle team and have a lot of offensive zone time.
“The third part of it is, our goaltenders have been big when we needed them to be big. They’ve come up with timely saves, and the times they’ve been off, we’ve been able to score some extra goals to help us in the win column.”
The Maple Leafs missed the playoffs for the seventh straight season – the NHL’s longest active drought – which has freed up the likes of defenceman Jake Gardiner, centre Nazem Kadri, right winger Matt Frattin and goalie Ben Scrivens to join the Marlies. Eakins noted it would benefit the organization as a whole if the Marlies’ youngsters are able to taste a lengthy AHL playoff run.
“It’s important for them to experience the playoff challenges that come up,” he said. “I think you learn a lot about players when games are on the line and there’s some adversity.”