The league-leading Heat played with their trademark offensive verve early, but grew increasingly listless as the game wore on and went down to a meek 4-2 defeat to the Wild at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
The Wild’s suffocating neutral-zone trap surely played a role in the Heat’s struggles, as did Iowa’s stubborn refusal to take a penalty over the last 35 minutes of the game. Abbotsford’s potent power play, ranked second in the AHL, has carried the club at times, but the disciplined Wild wisely eliminated that factor from the comeback equation.
The game itself, though, might have been the least dramatic occurrence for the Heat on a day which began with the NHL parent Calgary Flames firing general manager Jay Feaster and assistant GM John Weisbrod, both of whom were intimately involved in shaping the AHL affiliate’s roster over the past two-plus seasons.
Brian Burke, the Flames’ president of hockey operations, will serve as interim GM as he searches for a replacement for Feaster. Speaking to Calgary media, he expressed a desire for more size on the roster, and later in the day, he assigned Sven Baertschi – considered a wunderkid prospect not so long ago – to Abbotsford.
Shocking as the twists and turns of the day might have been, Heat centre Corban Knight downplayed the notion that his squad may have been distracted vs. Iowa.
“The coaching staff did a good job of leaving that stuff out and just focusing on the 60 minutes tonight,” he asserted. “I don’t think that had an effect on us at all tonight. I think we’re a mature enough group of guys that we can just focus on playing and not worry about the external stuff.”
For the second straight evening, the Wild got an early goal – Chad Rau pounced on a juicy rebound and wristed a shot past Heat keeper Joey MacDonald at the 1:29 mark of the first period.
The Heat, though, responded with a power-play marker by Markus Granlund just over two minutes later – the Finnish rookie flicked his own rebound over Iowa goalie Johan Gustafsson to extend his point streak to 11 games. That’s the longest active streak in the AHL.
Shortly thereafter, the recently reassigned Derek Smith made his presence felt with a spectacular snipe, picking the top corner from the right faceoff dot to give the Heat a 2-1 lead.
Abbotsford had a golden opportunity to take a stranglehold on the game during an extended two-man advantage late in the first period, but failed to convert on a pair of good looks. Ben Street, with an open net in front of him, fired the puck through the crease from a sharp angle. Later, Ben Hanowski rang a shot off the post.
“I didn’t like our posture on the five-on-three at all – those guys weren’t special, and usually they’re pretty special,” head coach Troy Ward said. “We didn’t generate much there, and I thought that inevitably cost us . . . That was one of the first telling signs that we were starting to fall off the map a little bit.”
Indeed, the Wild took over in the second period, as Erik Haula scored a pair of gritty goals to give his team the lead.
The Heat struggled to mount much of a push in the final frame, and Kris Foucault snuffed their hopes with a spectacular goal with 3:02 remaining. On a two-on-one break, he dangled his way around a sprawling MacDonald and tucked the puck inside the near post.
“We had a lot of empty seats on the bus, and as the game wore on, it got worse,” Ward summarized. “Abbotsford’s a decent-sized city – we’ve got a lot of bus stops, and a lot of guys got off. By the time we got back to here, it was a pretty empty bus. That’s the way it went tonight.”
Iowa, which sits 14th out of 15 teams in the Western Conference, improved to 9-13-1 on the season, while the Heat fell to 20-7-2.
“We realized our margin of error is really small,” Haula said afterward, alluding to the Heat’s clinical 6-2 win the night before. “We just played a complete game.
“We definitely took away some of the odd-man rushes we gave them yesterday and also some of the bounces that went in yesterday didn’t go in for them today and maybe went in for us.”
On the events of the day, Ward acknowledged that the dismissals of Feaster and Weisbrod were “unexpected.” Weisbrod was reportedly in Abbotsford on Thursday morning when the news broke.
“Jay and John are good people, but we understand the transactions that can happen when you get into this business, whether you’re a coach or management,” Ward said. “I’m proud to have both of them as friends, and I’m hopeful and excited about their futures in the game.
“I’m also respecting our management . . . obviously there’s a lot of experience in our management team up there, and they felt the change was needed. That’s just the business. You just move on to the next day and take the next step, whatever that is, with the organization.”
Baertschi did not arrive in Abbotsford in time to play Thursday, and Ward said he had yet to receive direction from the Flames on what areas of the 21-year-old Swiss sniper’s game need to be upgraded during his AHL sojourn.
“We have some good traction with Sven,” Ward said, pointing to the fact that Baertschi spent much of the NHL lockout-marred 2012-13 season with the Heat. “We look forward to working with him, and it’s our job to get him back on track.
“I haven’t spoken to Sven yet . . . but we’ll look at the whites of his eyes on Saturday at practice, and we’ll get him going again. And I’m excited about that, because he’s a good man.”
• Heat defenceman Drew MacKenzie, sidelined since Nov. 30 when he took a puck to the throat vs. the Utica Comets, was sent to the ECHL’s Alaska Aces on Thursday.
• The Heat have three more games left before Christmas, all on the road, beginning with a pair of date at Utica (the Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate) next Wednesday and Friday.