The Abbotsford Heat, without a doubt, are playing their finest hockey of the season.
The local AHLers capped a two-game weekend sweep of the Toronto Marlies with a clinical 3-0 triumph on Saturday evening at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre to stretch their winning streak to four and move into a tie with the Hamilton Bulldogs for second in the North Division.
Ugly goals and beautiful saves were the formula for success on this night.
Heat defenceman Chris Breen opened the scoring on a fortuitous bank shot. At 13:25 of the first period, he unleashed a slapper from the point went wide of the net, bounced off the end boards, glanced off the skate of Marlies goalie Jussi Rynnas and slid into the cage.
It marked Breen’s second goal of the season. His first, on Nov. 9 against the Houston Aeros, was equally fluky – his shoot-in from centre ice skipped twice before bouncing over the pad of goalie Anton Khudobin.
But just because Breen’s goals look like they fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down, doesn’t mean they count for any less than those of the highlight-reel variety.
“All the guys are kind of giving me grief,” Breen said with a chuckle afterward. “I’ll take them as they come, though.”
At the other end of the ice, Leland Irving turned in another tour de force performance. After a mild midseason slump, the Heat netminder is officially back in the groove. He’s been lights out over the past three games, allowing just one goal while stopping 83 of 84 shots.
“Before these last four or five games, I didn’t feel I was at the top of my game,” said Irving, who leads the AHL with 24 wins and is tied for second with five shutouts.
“For whatever reason, it seemed like there was one (goal) I was wanting back every night. But the guys would find a way to score a goal, tie it up and get it into a shootout, and we’d win that way. Or we’d score enough and we’d win in regulation.
“It’s nice to kind of pay them back a little bit.”
Saturday’s victory was particularly impressive in light of the fact it came at the tail end of a grueling seven-games-in-nine-nights stretch. Viewed collectively, the two wins against the Marlies represented the Heat’s best performance in a home-ice doubleheader this season.
“We were able to roll four lines and get six defencemen going,” head coach Jim Playfair pointed out. “I thought we controlled the puck well, and I thought we played with a lot of urgency.”
Irving did his best work in the second period, snuffing nine Marlies shots, including several golden scoring chances. His most memorable stop came on a Toronto power play early in the frame, as he kicked out his left leg to get a toe on Mike Zigomanis’s one-timed slap shot.
Just after that penalty kill, Cam Cunning made it 2-0 on a blue-collar effort. Gaelan Patterson dug the puck out of the corner and whipped a pass into the crease, where Cunning chipped it past Rynnas.
Midway through third period, Marlies defenceman Matt Lashoff took an elbows-up run at Greg Nemisz along the side boards, drilling the Heat winger in the head. Lashoff got a five-minute major and a game misconduct for his transgression.
On the ensuing power play, Stefan Meyer found the puck on his stick at the side of the net with Rynnas down and out, but he banged his initial shot off the post. No matter – the Fox Valley, Sask. native collected the puck on the bounce and still had time to sweep it into the yawning cage.
“If I didn’t put that second one in, I think my head would have been buried in my lap in the dressing room,” Meyer said with a chuckle afterward.
According to Playfair, Lashoff’s hit left Nemisz with an unusual dental arrangement.
“He had a tooth go through his lip,” the Heat bench boss said. “So they’re pulling the tooth out of his lip and sewing him up.”
As for Irving, Playfair has been impressed by the goalie’s resiliency.
“I think he’s proven he has the capability to dig down deep and find his game again,” Playfair said.
The Heat (27-22-2-5) and Bulldogs both have 61 points, though it should be noted that Hamilton has four games in hand. The Marlies (25-22-0-7) find themselves in fifth place in the North, four points back.
The Heat return to action next Friday with a home game on the road, as they take on the Oklahoma City Barons at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary. The two teams fly back to Abbotsford for a rematch on Saturday.