A frosty month behind them, the Abbotsford Heat are going to have to get awfully hot down the stretch in order to qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs.
With just 11 games remaining on their regular season schedule, the Heat (29-27-9, 67 points) are tied for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth, but their position is tenuous to say the least.
The Oklahoma City Barons, like the Heat, are at 67 points, but they have five games in hand. Additionally, the Milwaukee Admirals and Rockford IceHogs sit just one point back, and five and three games in hand, respectively.
The Heat owe their predicament to a rough 16-game stretch spent predominantly on the road. The last time they posted consecutive wins was Feb. 9-10 vs. the Lake Erie Monsters, but they’ve gone 3-11-2 since.
The website sportsclubstats.com pegs the Heat’s playoff chances at 3.9 per cent, but fretting about the post-season doesn’t register within head coach Troy Ward’s one-day-at-a-time, process-oriented approach.
“Our next job is to win Friday,” he said, looking ahead to a big Friday-Saturday set vs. Rockford (7 p.m. both nights, Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre). “That’s all we can worry about.
“I don’t look at the standings – never have, never will. I don’t even know how many points we’re out. I know we’ve played more game than anybody else, but we don’t talk about it in our team meetings. We just try to finish every day 1-0.”
SPECIAL TEAMS A SORE SPOT
The Heat have done some good things during their recent slump – they’ve out-shot their opponents by an average of 3.3 shots per game (30.6 for, 27.3 against) over their past 16 contests. The coaching staff also tracks scoring chances, and Ward said they’ve fared quite well in that department.
Abbotsford’s Achilles heel has been special teams – both the power play and penalty kill units have cratered.
Prior to the 16-game slide, the Heat’s penalty killers were extinguishing a league-best 89.9 per cent of opposition power plays. But they’ve been absolutely lit up of late, operating at just a 72.3 per cent success rate during the slump.
The power play has been no better, going from 17.6 per cent prior to the tailspin to 9.3 per cent during it.
Both the penalty kill and power play rates during the 16-game sample are lower than the AHL’s bottom-ranked units in each discipline over the course of the full season (the Barons’ penalty kill operates at 76.4 per cent, and the Hamilton Bulldogs’ power play is at 10.7 per cent).
The penalty-kill issues are particularly jarring, and Ward attributes the dip entirely to changes personnel. The Heat have lost the services of blueliners T.J. Brodie, Steve McCarthy and Joe Piskula since the end of the NHL lockout, and goalie Danny Taylor – who had seized control of the No. 1 job – was signed by the Calgary Flames on Feb. 6 and has spent the vast majority of his time in the NHL since then (he was reassigned to Abbotsford on Tuesday).
The power-play woes could be considered part of the Heat’s team-wide struggles to put the puck in the net – they’re the second-lowest scoring squad in the AHL (2.18 goals per game).
“We just haven’t performed very well in some moments of truth,” Ward analyzed. “We’ve had people in the right spots to score – they were kind of there, but they were in an out-of-body experience (mentally).
“It’s been mostly special teams, but our execution on some five-on-five plays hasn’t been nearly what it was in the first half (of the season). Most of it’s right around the cage.”
EFFORT NOT AN ISSUE
That said, Ward said he can’t find fault with his group’s work ethic.
He was particularly pleased with the character the Heat showed to rally for a 5-4 shootout win at the San Antonio Rampage last Sunday. The Rampage scored twice in a 14-second span late in the third period to take their first lead of the game, but Blair Jones scored with 9.2 seconds left to knot the score and Abbotsford finished the job in the shootout.
“You’d just say, ‘This group will fold right now,’ but they didn’t fold at all,” Ward said. “They found not only a way to score in the last seconds on a six-on-five, they even won the shootout. It was massive. What can you say about a group of men like that?”
Ward said the slump has been frustrating for the players, but that’s not where his head is at.
“As far as being a teacher, you ask your group of people to do what they can with what they have,” he said. “Their attitude is awesome, their work ethic is awesome, they continue to train really well. If I didn’t think those things were happening, my answer would be way different.
“There’s areas we have to improve in, but they haven’t hurt this organization or hurt this city with a lack of giving it everything they have,” he added.
“At the end of the day, we’re in a performance business, and we are accountable for our wins and losses. We haven’t won as many games as we would have liked. But at the same time, no results doesn’t mean that the process hasn’t been good. The process has been really good. I’m really proud of the guys.”