Conventional hockey wisdom holds that the playoffs are a time when the grizzled veterans take over.
But as rookies go, Max Reinhart is a rather precocious.
In just his third pro hockey game, the 20-year-old centre was the difference, notching a goal and an assist as the Abbotsford Heat beat the Toronto Marlies 3-1 on Tuesday evening in the opening game of their best-of-seven second round series.
Game 2 goes Thursday in Toronto, and Game 3 is Saturday at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
Reinhart’s two-way skills and understanding of the game are beyond his years, and Heat head coach Troy Ward lauded the youngster’s “hockey brain” in the aftermath.
“The one thing about Max is, he finds himself to always be in positions to make an impact on the game,” Ward said of Reinhart, who fired a team-high five shots on net and had a +2 rating. “We’ve seen him now, in a short amount of time, score some goals at this level, and that’s not by coincidence. That has to do with his hockey intelligence.”
Playing before 4,934 fans at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum, Reinhart opened the scoring at 15:24 of the first period. Greg Nemisz chipped the puck ahead to spring Reinhart and Hugh Jessiman on a two-on-one break, which devolved into a goalmouth scramble. Reinhart tracked down the biscuit and chipped it over fallen Marlies goalie Ben Scrivens.
Midway through the second period, the rookie made a sweet play to set up the Heat’s second goal. Reinhart passed the puck to himself off the back of the net to elude a Marlies defender, then fed Chris Breen at the point, and the big blueliner’s shot beat Scrivens.
The Heat began the third period in nervous fashion – the hosts registered the first six shots of the frame, and that pressure yielded a goal by Matt Frattin off a feed from Joe Colborne.
But Abbotsford goalie Danny Taylor slammed the door from there – he turned aside 14 shots in the third period, including a pair of point-blank stops on Toronto forward Ryan Hamilton to preserve the one-goal lead.
Guillaume Desbiens got the insurance marker, scoring into an empty net with 1:21 remaining.
Reinhart, who joined the Heat after his WHL season with the Kootenay Ice ended, now has four points in three AHL games. He’s found a comfort zone on a line with Jessiman and Nemisz.
“I’ve had a lot of help,” he said, deflecting the credit for his hot start to his pro career. “There’s a lot of talk (with Jessiman and Nemisz), and they’re just really smart with the puck and make it very easy to adjust to a new system.
“It’s been a very smooth transition so far, but I think I still have a long way to go.”
The Heat posted their 11th consecutive victory dating back to the regular season, and Taylor has been between the pipes for nine of those triumphs. The Heat keeper was terrific once again on Tuesday, finishing with 31 saves.
Ward felt the Heat defence put Taylor in a position to succeed by giving him a clear view of the Marlies’ shots and then limiting second and third chances.
Jessiman said Taylor “epitomizes the character of our team.”
“He’s quiet but confident, and very focused,” Jessiman explained. “He stood in there and made some point-blank saves in the slot, and those are just huge saves.”
All in all, it was more of the same for the Heat, who have boasted a metronome-like consistency over the past month and were coming off a first-round sweep of the Milwaukee Admirals.
“We’re a tight-knit group,” Jessiman said. “One of our strengths is, we don’t look too far ahead and we don’t rest on our laurels. We had a good start (on Tuesday) – we got the first goal, and we battled.”