The longest game in Abbotsford Heat history ended in heartbreak for the hosts.
Ryan Sproul’s shot from the right point found its way through a crowd and past Heat goalie Joni Ortio with 33.4 seconds left in the second overtime, as the Grand Rapids Griffins claimed a 2-1 victory in Game 1 of their best-of-five first-round playoff series.
The Heat probably deserved a better fate – they out-shot the Griffins 56-41 and comprehensively dominated the second and third periods, and the first OT session.
But Grand Rapids goalie Petr Mrazek was utterly phenomenal, making 55 saves – many of the spectacular variety – en route to first star honours.
After nearly 100 minutes of gruelling action, the two teams face a quick turnaround, as Game 2 goes at 7 p.m. Saturday at Abbotsford Centre.
“In the end, it was tough for us to get scored on,” Heat forward Sven Baertschi said. “But . . . I think we showed tonight that we should win this series.”
Sproul, for his part, suggested he was almost relieved to see the puck go in after a long night of hockey.
“I was assuming it was going to the third overtime,” he said. “I just threw the puck on net and getting ready to go for a change.
“I’m glad it went in.”
Sproul’s goal brought to an end a wildly entertaining night of hockey, witnessed by 2,420 fans at Abbotsford Centre.
Heat forward Brett Olson opened the scoring at 11:44 of the first period, chipping the puck over Mrazek on a goalmouth scramble. Baertschi had the initial shot, a one-timer from the slot off a slick feed from Corban Knight, and he had a crack at the rebound before Olson cleaned up the loose puck at the left side of the cage.
The goaltending duel was fantastic all night long, and the two ‘tenders did some of their best work in the second period.
On a Griffins power play, Andreas Athanasiou was sent in alone down the left wing and attempted to lift a backhander inside the far post, but Ortio stoned him with a sprawling glove save.
Not long thereafter, during a man advantage for the Heat, Mrazek answered Ortio’s acrobatics with some of his own. Abby forward Blair Jones absolutely destroyed Griffins defenceman Brennan Evans with a huge hit on the forecheck and shovelled the puck to Ben Street, who cut across the top of the crease and tried to tuck the puck around Mrazek, but he extended his right pad for a highlight-reel stop.
The Griffins afforded the Heat two five-on-three power plays in the second period, including one which lasted a minute a 48 seconds. But the hosts were unable to expand the lead on those occasions, which they would come to rue as the night wore on.
“You can’t really always determine whether your team’s going to score, but you can determine that there’s got to be some momentum out of that, some shots, and some really good looks,” said Abby head coach Troy Ward, whose squad finished 0-for-6 with the man advantage.
“That was my disappointment in both five-on-threes. I didn’t think we were real crisp there, and I didn’t think we generated any momentum out of it. I thought it was actually more deflating for our hockey team than it was a pick-me-up.”
The Heat’s power-play failures allowed the Griffins to hang around, and they tied it up at 12:37 of the third. Defenceman Mattias Backman jumped into the rush to take a feed from Athanasiou, then undressed Emile Poirier – the Heat’s 19-year-old right winger playing just his third game as a pro – with a toe-drag before picking the top corner over Ortio’s blocker.
The Heat had yet another power-play chance with 3:02 left in regulation when Griffins forward Jordin Tootoo was whistled in the neutral zone for tripping, and they generated a great look just as the penalty expired.
Chad Billins slipped a feed to Markus Granlund, who got to the front of the net unmolested, but Mrazek snared his rising backhander with his glove for a game-saving stop.
In the first overtime, the most memorable action was sparked by a collision between Baertschi and Mrazek. With the Heat’s Swiss sniper chasing down a lead pass on the left wing, Mrazek came charging way out of his net in an effort to break up the play.
He got to the puck a split second before Baertschi, who slammed on the breaks, but the Griffins goalie still took the worst of the fender-bender. The puck squirted to Olson in the neutral zone, but he had to wait for Baertschi to untangle himself from Mrazek and get on-side before trying a shot at the empty net. Grand Rapids D-man Nick Jensen dropped to one knee to block his long wrister, though.
Mrazek was attended to by a trainer, but he stayed in.
The Griffins started to get more traction in the second OT, forcing the Heat to ice the puck and regroup in the defensive zone with regularity.
With a third OT seeming like a certainty, Sproul finally broke the deadlock.
“Obviously we had plenty of really good looks,” Ward mused afterward. “We didn’t score . . . and obviously their goalie had quite the night.
“We anticipated this series that it could be the two goalies stealing the show. You would anticipate Game 1 would be everything it was. Obviously Orts didn’t see anywhere near the quality shots Mrazek did, but he made the big saves.
“That’s why you win in the playoffs – you get those unbelievable performances, and it only takes one person. (Mrazek) was the right guy tonight for them.”
Baertschi said the Heat need to take better advantage of Mrazek’s aggressive tendencies.
“He challenges you really hard – he comes out of the net and takes away a lot of space,” Baertschi said. “I think for us, what we have to do is make sure that we can fake him out – make him move, make sure he goes down and moves side to side. I think we can beat him that way.
“I thought there were a few chances we had tonight where we could have been a little more patient and wait a second before we shot. In the end, it’s just a learning process for us. We don’t play him that often during the season, and it’s good to get to know him in that game, especially when you play five periods.”
Olson said nutrition, rest and having short-term memories with regards to Friday’s frustrating result will be key as the Heat try to regroup for Saturday’s Game 2.
“It’s playoff hockey, and sometimes that’s the way the bounce goes,” he said. “But we’re still back at our own rink, and we’ve got a game tomorrow and that’s the biggest thing – quick turnaround, forget about it, and get back out there and get to work.”
• In the franchise’s previous 21 playoff games, the Heat had gone to OT just once – and it happened to be in their most recent post-season tilt. On May 9, 2012, Mike Zigomanis of the Toronto Marlies scored on Abby goalie Danny Taylor at 9:02 of the extra frame to give his team a 3-2 victory and a 4-1 win in their second-round series.
• The Heat and Marlies both lost key offensive-minded defencemen due to injury in the first period – Abby’s Derek Smith and Grand Rapids’ Adam Almquist both made early exits.
Ward had no immediate update on Smith’s status afterward.
“Based on him not finishing the game, it’s obviously not likely he’ll play again tomorrow,” he said.