Henrik Karlsson’s first start with the Abbotsford Heat will come in familiar surroundings.
Heat head coach Troy Ward confirmed that Karlsson, the erstwhile Calgary Flames backup goalie who was assigned to Abbotsford for a two-week conditioning stint on Sunday, will get the start when the Heat “host” the Oklahoma City Barons at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Thursday evening.
The last time Karlsson saw game action was Dec. 4, when he suffered a sprained MCL in his right knee against the Vancouver Canucks. Coming off the injury, the 28-year-old Swede is hoping to hit the reset button on his season – he struggled earlier in the year, posting an 0-4-1 record in relief of Flames starter Miikka Kiprusoff, to go with a 3.48 goals against average and an .895 save percentage.
“I’m trying to take it as a fresh start,” Karlsson said Tuesday, reflecting on his assignment to the Heat. “I’m certainly a much better goalie this year than last year, but the results don’t show that.
“I’m battling every day trying to get better.”
Given that Karlsson is coming off a two-month convalescence, Ward was careful to note that rest often equals rust. But the keeper said that physically, he’s ready to go.
“The knee is fine now – I don’t even think about it,” said Karlsson, whose 6’5″ stature gave rise to his Calgary Tower nickname. “I’ve been on the ice for a couple weeks now, and it feels good. No problem at all.
“It’s going to fun and exciting to play a couple games here. They have a good team here also, a good bunch of guys.”
CONNELLY FITS IN SEAMLESSLY
The Heat’s other high-profile newcomer, Brian Connelly, had a unique introduction to his new team.
The former Chicago Blackhawks farmhand was acquired in a trade for centre Brendan Morrison on Jan. 27, just prior to the AHL all-star game. Connelly was already ticketed for the midseason showcase in Atlantic City, N.J., in recognition of his exploits on behalf of the Rockford IceHogs.
The offensive-minded blueliner showed up in Atlantic City with his IceHogs gear in his hockey bag, though he was no longer a member of that franchise. The equipment manager at the all-star game had to run to a store and buy a Heat jersey for him to wear during the skills competition.
“It was just a replica jersey,” Connelly noted with a chuckle. “They popped my name on the back, got it set up.”
Connelly, a 5’11” speedster who won the fastest skater event at the skills competition, has fit in seamlessly with the Heat – he’s registered three assists in his first three games with his new club.
“Guys like him are a blessing,” asserted Ward, noting that he’s usually plugging roster holes with ECHL call-ups, rather than AHL all-stars. “There’s a certain skill component and mental component that he brings.”
BATTLE OF ALBERTA, AHL EDITION
Thursday’s game will mark the second consecutive season the Heat have staged a home game in Calgary against the Barons, the Edmonton Oilers’ affiliate.
The Battle of Alberta, AHL edition, didn’t go so well for the Heat the first time around. On Feb. 18, 2011, the Barons scored twice in the final two minutes of the third period to beat Abbotsford 3-1, and the only reason it was even that close was, Heat goalie Leland Irving stood on his head. OKC out-shot Abbotsford 27-19 that night, and Ward recalled it as the team’s worst performance of the season.
“The players are excited to play in front of the Calgary fans and say, ‘This is who we are,'” Ward analyzed. “But I think like any player would be at this age, they’re nervous. We’ve tried to take the necessary steps to relieve those nerves and let them play more towards who they are.”
Rookie winger Ryan Howse, out since Jan. 6 with a shoulder injury, returned to practice on Monday, and he’ll make the trip to Calgary.
But Ward said his team, which has lost seven of its last nine games, is still seeking an identity to due to the absence of some of their bigger, grittier players. Forwards Quintin Laing (concussion) and Greg Nemisz (shoulder) are still sidelined due to injury, and the Heat are still adjusting to life without Lance Bouma (recalled by Flames) and Brendan Mikkelson (traded to Tampa Bay Lightning).
“We’re missing the heart of our team in a lot of ways, in terms of our physicalness and our size,” Ward said. “We went from a decent-sized team that can handle some physical situations, and then we’ve become very small. We’re not a very difficult team to play against right now.
“We’ve got to get some bodies back, and the bodies we have here, we’ve got to make them better players.”
Oklahoma City tops the West Division and overall AHL standings with a 30-12-2-3 record for 65 points. The Heat, at 26-18-3-0, are 10 points back.
After Thursday’s game, the two teams fly to Abbotsford for a rematch on Saturday (7 p.m., Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre).