Irving the first-half MVP for the Abbotsford Heat

Leland Irving has little margin for error playing on an Abbotsford Heat team that struggles to score

Leland Irving has little margin for error playing on an Abbotsford Heat team that struggles to score

At the midway point of the American Hockey League regular season, Abbotsford Heat goalie Leland Irving has the pole position in the team MVP race.

On a scoring-challenged team, the 22-year-old Swan Hills, Alta. native has been the backbone.

Irving’s stats to this point are impressive. Forty games into the campaign, he’s tied for second among AHL goalies in wins – Irving and Matt Climie of the San Antonio Rampage both have 16 victories, one back of Aldergrove native Brad Thiessen of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Irving’s 2.32 goals against average is 10th-best on the circuit.

But after winning 10 of his first 13 starts, Irving’s numbers have slipped somewhat of late. He’s just 5-7-1 since the start of December, and while it’s important to note he hasn’t gotten much in the way of offensive support during that stretch, head coach Jim Playfair feels Irving needs to be better.

Last Saturday’s game against the Adirondack Phantoms, when Irving got the hook early in the second period after surrendering two goals on nine shots, was a case in point.

“I think that Irv hasn’t been as sharp as he needs to be to be a No. 1 goaltender,” Playfair told The News earlier this week, speaking of Irving’s recent play. “I want to make sure that we don’t slip back and have a situation where we need to challenge our goaltenders each and every night to be the No. 1 guy. I fully expect Irv to step up and be the No. 1 guy.”

Irving fully expects the same of himself.

“Any goalie, they take pride in coming back strong in a game that they’ve been pulled,” he said. “Not that you change anything – you just seem to be a little sharper. I’ve been able to bounce back before, so I’m just going to work hard in practice and keep doing what I’ve been doing. I don’t see any reason to make any big changes.”

When Irving departed on Saturday, the Heat trailed the Phantoms 2-0. The hosts rallied for a 3-2 shootout victory to complete a weekend sweep of Adirondack. Those victories, coming on the heels of a seven-game losing streak, made for a happier atmosphere around the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre this week.

“It’s definitely uplifting for the confidence of the group,” Irving said. “We’re constantly working on things, trying to get better, and it’s a process. It’s going to take time, and we know that. We’ve just got to stick with it, and trust that what we’re doing is going to benefit us in the long run.”

ICE CHIPS:

n Two of the Heat’s rookie centres are going in opposite directions, health-wise. Gaelan Patterson, recovering from a concussion, appears poised to return to the lineup after practising this week. Mitch Wahl sat out last Saturday’s game and hasn’t practiced since after sustaining a neck injury on Friday vs. Adirondack. His timeline for return is uncertain at this point.

n Playfair said that John Negrin (knee surgery) is still two to three weeks away from returning. Kris Chucko, who played just two games this season before suffering a concussion, is back riding the bike at the AESC this week, which Playfair called an “encouraging” sign. Carter Bancks, also out with a concussion, is beginning to ramp up his bike riding, but is still not skating at this point.

n The Heat host the Toronto Marlies in a two-game set at the AESC this weekend – 7 p.m. on Friday, and 11 a.m. on Sunday.