In the wake of a 4-1 home-ice loss to the Toronto Marlies on Saturday evening, the Abbotsford Heat find themselves trailing in a series for the first time in these Calder Cup playoffs.
But don’t expect Troy Ward to reach for the panic button.
In fact, to listen to the Heat head coach talk, he’s not certain as to the location of said button. He may not even be aware of its existence, metaphorical though it may be.
Abbotsford has yet to solve the Marlies’ top-ranked penalty kill in the series – they went 0-for-4 on the power play on Saturday, and are now 0-for-16 over the first three games.
The Heat were also second-best in the goaltending department on Saturday, as Ben Scrivens out-dueled Leland Irving, who was making his first start in nearly three weeks and surrendered a suspect goal just 58 seconds into the game.
But on both fronts, Ward offered spirited post-game defences. He liked Irving’s play “a lot,” and he pointed out he evaluates the power play based on the number of scoring chances generated. Ward felt the Heat were much better in that department on Saturday than they had been in Game 2, when they went 0-for-9 with the man advantage.
“We’re down 2-1 (in the series), but we feel awesome,” Ward asserted. “You guys (the media) might be a little down, but there ain’t nobody in that room down. We liked our game. They didn’t get out of their end at times, we did some good things on the forecheck, I thought we were more physical.
“You’ll find us all energized on Tuesday and ready to go (for Game 4). We’re excited. They’re the two seed – why shouldn’t we be excited? They’re an unbelievable team. We just keep coming at them. We love this (stuff). Seriously. We love it.”
Irving, who watched from the bench as Danny Taylor started the Heat’s first five playoff games, got off to a rough start, as the second shot he faced found the back of the net. Marlies forward Nazem Kadri did the deed, sweeping around the net and tucking in a wrap-around.
Matt Frattin doubled Toronto’s lead at the 11:43 mark of the first. The red-hot Frattin, who has scored in each of the three games in the series, stole the puck from Clay Wilson in the neutral zone, then swept in and fired a wrist shot from the left circle that deflected off Heat defender Chris Breen’s stick and went over Irving’s glove.
Despite the two-goal deficit, it wasn’t a terrible opening frame for the Heat as a whole, as they generated some good looks at Scrivens. The closest they came to scoring was when Hugh Jessiman wired a slap shot off the post on a power play, and Scrivens stood his ground on the ensuing goalmouth scramble.
The Heat got to Scrivens early in the second, as Dustin Sylvester tipped in Wilson’s point shot at the 2:21 mark.
The hosts were pressing for more, and nearly got the equalizer when Greg Nemisz and Max Reinhart got away on a two-on-one break. Nemisz sent a pass across, but Reinhart couldn’t get a stick on the puck.
Shortly thereafter, the Marlies restored their two-goal cushion against the run of play. Marcel Mueller came busting down the left wing and fired a shot that Irving got a piece of. The puck dribbled through the crease, and Philippe Dupuis fought through a check to jam it in at the far post.
Irving came up with a massive stop late in the frame to keep his team in it, stoning Greg Scott on a shorthanded breakaway with a highlight-reel glove save.
In the third period, the Marlies – the AHL’s stingiest defensive team during the regular season – made it tough for the Heat to get anywhere near Scrivens.
Abbotsford’s comeback effort was blunted by a trio of penalties in the final frame, none of which the Marlies scored on. But just after the third penalty – a cross-checking call on Brett Carson – expired, Mueller put the game out of reach, tapping in a sweet feed from Ryan Hamilton.
In the aftermath, Irving echoed Ward’s optimism, noting the game was closer than the score indicated.
“The guys played great,” he said. “Our penalty kill was solid – we had a lot of guys blocking shots, and I thought we spent a lot of time in their end. Unfortunately we just didn’t get enough pucks to the net and bodies to the net. In this league, when you’ve got a goalie like Ben Scrivens down there, you’ve got to get lots of pucks and bodies in front of him.”
Irving hadn’t seen game action since the regular season finale on April 15, and he grew stronger as the game wore on. Ward offered a “no comment” as to which goalie he’ll pick for Game 4.
“A little rusty at the start, obviously, but I was excited to get in there,” Irving said. “It was a big game, and any pro athlete loves being thrown into those situations.
“Unfortunately, that wrap-around is one I’ll stop 99 out of 100. After that, it was just about playing my game and being patient.”
Frattin, whose goal stood up as the game-winner, lauded the play of his goalie Scrivens, who finished with 20 saves.
“He’s a confident kid,” Frattin said. “It doesn’t matter if they’ve just scored. He’ll get back on his feet and start playing like you know he can. He’s been our backbone, and we’re just trying to get some goals for him. He’s definitely keeping us in games.”
• The Heat made two lineup changes, inserting Akim Aliu for Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond up front, and Brett Carson for Joe Piskula on defence.
• Wilson had an eventful evening – he was on the ice for all five goals scored in the game, ending up with an assist and a -3 rating in 22:29 of ice time.
• Among the 3,086 fans in attendance, there were quite a number wearing Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys.
“Toronto fans are everywhere you go – it’s crazy,” Frattin noted. “It was definitely good to see them out here tonight.”
• Games 4 and 5 run Tuesday and Wednesday at the AESC, with the puck dropping at 7 p.m. both nights.