Just over two months ago, the Abbotsford Heat were breathing rarefied air at the top of the Western Conference standings.
Today, they find themselves in a claustrophobic cluster of teams scratching and clawing for a playoff berth.
In between, the local AHL squad – and their NHL parent, the Calgary Flames – endured a horrific run of injuries which they are only now beginning to emerge from.
With just 10 games remaining in the regular season, crunch time has officially arrived. The good news is, the Heat’s depth is slowly being restored – the likes of Paul Byron and Krys Kolanos have returned to the lineup recently, and the team claimed five of a possible six points over their last three games on the road.
“This league always ends up pretty tight at the end,” Heat centre Ben Walter said, noting that injuries and call-ups tend to be a great equalizer. “It’s something we just have to deal with, and enjoy this last stretch of games leading into the playoffs.
“For me, I think it’s the funnest time of the year to play. It’s important hockey, and every little thing counts out there.”
Heading into a two-game weekend set against the San Antonio Rampage at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre (Saturday 7 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m.), there’s precious little elbow room in the Western Conference standings.
Only the Oklahoma City Barons and the Toronto Marlies have pulled away from the pack to any significant degree, while the teams ranked third through 10th are separated by just five points. Only the top eight make the post-season.
The Heat, with 75 points, are currently in sixth. It’s worth noting that no other team has played more games than Abbotsford’s 66, but they do hold their destiny in their own hands.
You won’t hear much musing about the standings in the Heat locker room, however, and that’s a product of head coach Troy Ward’s relentlessly process-oriented approach.
“We don’t talk about it at all – we don’t even have a standings board (in the locker room),” Ward said. “It’s important to worry about the things you can control in life, and just focus on the day-to-day.
“We talk about the process every day, we talk about our execution, we talk about development both on and off the ice. Whatever happens in the end, it happens.”
Eight of the Heat’s final 10 games are at home, which should ostensibly be beneficial.
But home cooking hasn’t exactly been comfort food this season. The Heat have been terrific on the road – their 22-11-0-3 record has them tied with the Barons for the most road wins in the Western Conference. But they’ve been mediocre in the not-so-friendly confines of the AESC, where they’re 12-14-3-1.
Coming down the stretch, it’s imperative that the Heat sort out their issues at home – their playoff lives depend on it.
Ward noted that his squad’s goaltending and penalty kill have been better on the road than at home, contributing to the divergent results. The Heat’s PK differential is indeed striking – they kill off 88.4 per cent of their man disadvantages on the road, best in the league, while their 79.3 per cent success rate at home is ranked 26th.
“We just need to play like we’re capable of playing,” Ward summarized. “When we do, whether we’re at home or on the road, we usually have good success.”
EDDY, ELSON ADDED TO MIX, DESBIENS RETURNS FROM FLAMES
In recent weeks, with all the injuries and call-ups, the Heat have dressed only 11 forwards at times.
They’ve added a great deal of depth up front this week. Greg Nemisz and Guillaume Desbiens have been returned from the Flames, and newcomers David Eddy and Turner Elson have been added to the mix.
Eddy, a 22-year-old forward out of St. Cloud University, signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Flames which takes effect next season. In the meantime, he’s inked an amateur tryout (ATO) deal with Abbotsford. Eddy posted 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) in 39 games with St. Cloud this season.
Elson signed with the Flames back in September after a solid showing at the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton. After his WHL squad, the Red Deer Rebels, failed to make the playoffs this season, he joined the Heat on an ATO. He scored 46 points (21 goals, 25 assists) in 56 games with the Rebels.
Ward is familiar with both players – he coached Elson at the Young Stars event, and Eddy, a Woodbury, Minn. native, worked for him at his Hockey and Sons summer camp in Minnesota.
“That’s not the reason he signed here – I didn’t even know they (the Flames) were talking to him,” Ward said of Eddy. “That’s just how small the world is.”
Eddy, being a more seasoned player, stands a far greater chance of seeing game action than does Elson, 19.
The youngster, though, is thrilled to get his first taste of pro hockey.
“It’s a really good opportunity, and I’m going to embrace it,” said Elson. “It’s a big step up from junior, so I’m going to work on my skills, work on my play and hopefully get better throughout the rest of the season here.”
LAING, RHEAULT STILL ON THE SHELF
The Heat are still missing two key forwards in captain Quintin Laing and Jon Rheault.
Laing hasn’t played since March 9 against the Peoria Rivermen – he was stepped on by a skate, and underwent surgery to repair a tendon.
Rheault has been out since Feb. 11 with what Ward termed an “internal body injury.” The Heat bench boss said both players will be sidelined for at least another week.
“If Laing and Rheault were here, we’d be really complete,” Ward said. “Rheault’s been the biggest stinger of anybody. He’s the heart and soul of our team.”