For a coach presiding over a three-game losing streak, Troy Ward was in an awfully chipper mood in the aftermath of the Abbotsford Heat’s 4-0 loss to the San Antonio Rampage on Wednesday.
“Couldn’t be happier,” he told reporters after settling in at the press conference podium. “I thought we did some really, really good things. It’s actually probably the happiest I’ve been all year.”
The dichotomy between Ward’s mood and the scoreboard stems from the fact that he’s relentlessly process-oriented. Results are short-term; proper structure, competitiveness and scoring-chance generation provide the foundation for consistent longterm success.
On Wednesday, Ward felt his team submitted the type of performance that would yield a victory on most nights. For the second consecutive evening, they outshot the Rampage by a lopsided margin (36-14). But just like on Tuesday, when they fell 3-2 in overtime despite a 34-17 edge in shots, they were unlucky in some respects to come out on the losing end.
The difference on Wednesday was that the Rampage got stellar goaltending from Jacob Markstrom, while his Heat counterpart Leland Irving struggled.
Irving was making his first start since Nov. 18, and his teammates didn’t give him a lot of support early.
The Rampage opened the scoring at 4:29 of the first period after blueliners Brady Lamb and Steve McCarthy combined to cough up the puck in the defensive zone, and Scott Timmins blew a slap shot past Irving.
Justin Vaive made it 2-0 less than three minutes later, cruising in on a two-on-one and picking the bottom corner, blocker side, on the Heat keeper.
Quintin Howden ended Irving’s night early in the second period, speeding around Chris Breen on the rush before flicking a shot between the goalie’s pads.
Irving’s final stat line – three goals against on eight shots – wasn’t pretty, and when Danny Taylor replaced him, it marked the first time this season that the Heat had switched goalies mid-game.
“There was a lot of me that didn’t want to pull Leland, I really didn’t,” Ward said. “I wanted him to battle through it a little bit. But in fairness to Leland, I wanted to take the pressure off him. And the other thing is, I wanted to really get a goalie in our group used to coming off the bench. Because that’s going to happen, and it’s important.”
Irving’s numbers through five starts (3.33 goals against average, .884 save percentage) don’t stack up well in comparison to Barry Brust (0.99, .958) and Taylor (1.69, .933), the other two members of the Heat’s netminding triumvirate.
But Ward said he told Irving after he was pulled: “It’s December 5th – no big deal.”
“Brust and Taylor are going to have those nights too,” he said. “That’s just the way it goes.”
The Heat’s best scoring chances came after they were already behind 3-0. Roman Horak had a golden opportunity when Max Reinhart set him up at the side of the net, but he wasn’t able to steer the puck into the open cage.
Later, on an Abbotsford power play, Markstrom made a stunning right pad save on Greg Nemisz, going left-to-right to stop the Heat forward’s one-timer.
Howden’s second of the game, into an empty net with 1:49 remaining, rounded out the scoring.
“We got a couple lucky bounces but I think we deserved them,” Markstrom said afterward. “We were working hard when we scored those goals. We didn’t have 50 shots today, but the shots we had were pretty good scoring chances.”
The Heat, over the last couple weeks, have amassed a litany of injuries – all in the forward corps. The team’s greatest area of depth is up front, but with eight players currently hurt, that depth is being tested in a big way.
Krys Kolanos was a scratch on Wednesday after being “nicked up” (Ward’s term) the previous night, joining Ben Walter, Sven Baertschi, Lance Bouma, Akim Aliu, David Eddy and Michael Ferland on the shelf.
Ryan Howse, called up from the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies on Sunday, was the latest to go down – he was injured on his second shift Wednesday, and Ward said they may have to look to Utah for more reinforcements tomorrow.
“The way they’re piling up is kind of bizarre,” he noted. “They’re these little nicks and bumps, but they’re significant enough where they’re taking guys out.”
The Heat’s aura of invincibility has been dented over the past week, but with a 13-4-5 record for 31 points, they still sit first overall in the AHL.
• The Heat dressed just three veterans (Quintin Laing, Steve McCarthy and Joe Callahan) on Wednesday, marking the first time all season they’ve gone with less than the maximum allowable of five. Walter and Kolanos were injured, while defenceman Joe Piskula was a healthy scratch.
“Our whole staff felt like Joe didn’t play up to the expectation we need out of one of our captains, and we decided to make him a healthy scratch,” Ward said of Piskula, who was -1 with two shots on goal in Tuesday’s loss. “It’s OK. It’s a long year, and Joe’s a good player for us.”
• Abbotsford now hits the road for a two-game jaunt consisting of stops at the Toronto Marlies on Sunday and at the Rochester Americans on Tuesday.