The way Leland Irving is rolling lately, one goal seems to be all the Abbotsford Heat need.
Irving slammed the door on the Hamilton Bulldogs on Monday evening, as the Heat notched their second straight 1-0 victory at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
Irving’s shutout streak now stands at 121:04, dating back to Friday’s 4-2 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins and continuing through Saturday’s 1-0 triumph over Grand Rapids.
To say the Abbotsford keeper stood on his head on Monday isn’t a strong enough metaphor. It was a full-on Cirque du Soleil performance in the Heat crease, such were the degree of difficulty of some of the saves Irving was called upon to make.
“Oh man, he’s phenomenal,” marveled Heat forward Tyler Ruegsegger, a recent ECHL call-up who supplied the lone goal of the game.
“He kept us in the game, and he made some big saves at the end. It’s great to have him back there.”
Irving’s heroics buoyed the Heat’s playoff hopes. At 37-29-4-6 for 84 points, they’re now just three points back of the Oklahoma City Barons for the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division, and they have a game in hand. OKC, the fifth-place team in the West, is in position to claim the North’s last post-season slot via the crossover.
Hamilton (41-27-2-7, 91 points) missed an opportunity to lock up a playoff berth. The Bulldogs are two points back of the Manitoba Moose for first in the North, with a game in hand.
The Heat and Bulldogs battle once again on Tuesday (7 p.m., AESC), in what will be the final home game of the regular season for Abbotsford.
Irving made 23 saves for his seventh shutout of the season Monday, and some of his greatest hits included thwarting Bulldogs forwards J.T. Wyman and Ryan Russell on breakaways, and stoning Andrew Conboy from point-blank range in the second period.
“I feel a little refreshed, I guess,” said Irving, who returned to the Heat lineup last Friday after missing five games with a groin injury. “I don’t really know what the major difference is, but I’m just finding pucks and I seem to be pretty solid positionally.
“It was just one of those tight games. The boys did a great job of handling their forwards. They’re a very talented bunch over there, so we had our work cut out for us.”
Monday’s win was a carbon copy of Saturday’s triumph over Grand Rapids, in ways that went beyond the score. In both contests, the Heat got the game-winner on a power play early in the third period. Both times, it was a player scoring his first career AHL goal – Justin Dowling on Saturday, and Ruegsegger on Monday.
Ruegsegger has been a hit in his brief tenure with the Heat. The Lakewood, Colorado native, signed a professional tryout contract two weeks ago, and on Monday, he found himself on the first-unit power play.
With Hamilton defenceman Neil Petruic banished to the sin bin for interference early in the third, Dowling sent a cross-ice feed to Kotalik at the top of the left circle. The Czech sniper rifled a one-timed slap shot that Ruegsegger tipped past Bulldogs goalie Drew MacIntyre, and the University of Denver product celebrated with a double fist pump.
“It was an exciting moment,” Ruegsegger acknowledged with a wide grin. “The past couple games there’s been some rebounds and some stuff in front that hasn’t bounced the right way. So to finally have one go the right way was nice.”
That Ruegsegger and Dowling are on the ice with the top unit power play at this point in the season is a story in itself. The Heat have amassed a laundry list of injured players – Stefan Meyer, Cam Cunning, Mitch Wahl, Kris Chucko, and recently T.J. Brodie among them – and to have youngsters contributing to the playoff push is reminiscent of the 2009-10 campaign.
“I was looking at things today, and it’s hard to believe we’re in exactly the same place as last year at exactly the same time,” Heat head coach Jim Playfair said, alluding to the injury issues and the plethora of junior and ECHL call-ups dotting the lineup.
“It’s not the way you want your season to lay out, but . . . you can’t bring those kids in and try to protect them. They’ve got to be good, solid, 200-foot players. If their skill in the East Coast League lets them play on the power play, I believe they should be able to do it here.
“I’m not giving nobody nothin’. They’re earning their minutes, and I think that’s what’s more important.”
The game crackled with playoff-type intensity, befitting the Heat’s desperate situation in the playoff race, and the two teams’ distaste for each other dating back to last year’s Calder Cup playoffs.
Playfair said the Heat and Bulldogs “hate each other.”
“When you play someone in a playoff series, you can create enough hate amongst your organizations that it leads to long-term competitiveness,” he said. “I think that’s what happened last year.
“I think that’s really important to have as a young franchise – to have teams that our fans get excited about cheering against when they come in.”
The Bulldogs dominated possession at times, particularly when their top line of Nigel Dawes, Dustin Boyd and Aaron Palushaj was on the ice. If Hamilton’s 23-shot total seemed low, it was a tribute to the shot-blocking courage of the players in front of Irving.
“I think we block more shots than any team in the American Hockey League, and probably the National Hockey League,” Playfair said. “On the character side and the compete side, I have no issue with them.”
Brodie, Abbotsford’s sensational rookie defenceman, is out with an ankle injury, and Playfair indicated it’s long-term. That’s a huge blow for the Heat – Brodie was second in team scoring (34 points in 68 games).
“We’re going to have to go real deep into the playoffs to see T.J. again,” Playfair said.