The Abbotsford Heat returned home this week with a 2-0 lead in their playoff series with the Milwaukee Admirals, and a realization that they’re positioned to soak up a bit more of the limelight on the Lower Mainland sports scene.
After the Los Angeles Kings completed a stunning first-round ouster of the President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks on Sunday evening, the Heat are, surprisingly, the only pro hockey team in Western Canada still alive in the post-season.
Whether that reality translates into more bums in seats remains to be seen – the average Lower Mainland fan seems more passionate about the Canucks than the sport of hockey in general, and of course, the Heat are the farm team of the Calgary Flames, one of Vancouver’s division rivals.
But with sun setting on the Canucks’ season, the opportunity for increased exposure can’t hurt the Heat.
“It’s unfortunate for the fans here that the Vancouver Canucks are out,” Heat forward Jon Rheault said, treading carefully in light of the angst Canucks supporters are surely feeling. “But I think it will give them an opportunity to come here and see their city’s team in a very awesome situation in the playoffs and support us during this run.
“It’ll be a great atmosphere. I’m excited about it – I think this is kind of what the organization needs, to be the only team going.”
Head coach Troy Ward said he’s sensed a growth in local interest over the course of the Heat’s season. He’s happiest about the fact that “the real true Heat fan still has a place to go to watch hockey.”
“If other people get on board because we’re winning and we’re still playing, that’s great too, for the game itself and for our community,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.
HEAT KEEP AN EVEN KEEL
With the aforementioned 2-0 series lead, the Heat can complete a sweep of the Admirals in Game 3 of the best-of-five set on Wednesday (7 p.m., Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre).
But while they could be swaggering back through the doors of the AESC after winning twice in Milwaukee, that doesn’t seem to be the case. This is an even-keel group that has taken on the character of their bench boss Ward.
“You hear that – don’t get too high or too low – but we’re definitely living that right now,” Rheault confirmed. “You can feel it on the bench. If we get scored on, everything’s fine. We know we can come back and get goals. We don’t really let anything affect us, positive or negative. We stay in the zone.”
Ward said his group has already shown signs of maturing during the Milwaukee series.
“I wouldn’t find us too high, I wouldn’t find us too low,” he said after practice Tuesday morning. “If anything, I might have brought us lower today, because I didn’t really care for parts of the film (from Games 1 and 2).
“We found a way to win, and I thought our timeliness both offensively and defensively have been good. But we have to keep in mind that both of those games in the second period, we were down by a goal.”
Ward, in fact, intimated that he may tinker with the lineup for Game 3, despite the fact his team is up 2-0.
“Changes will come because of player performances, not because we’re winning or losing,” asserted Ward, who added he’s “90 per cent sure” that Danny Taylor will start his third straight game in net on Wednesday.
SPECIAL TEAMS SCHISM
As the Heat prepare for their biggest home game (or games, if necessary) of the year, it’s worth revisiting a rather curious home-ice trend from the regular season.
The Heat have been tremendous away from the AESC, and special teams play has been foundational. The power play is ranked seventh in the AHL on the road (19.5 per cent) and the penalty kill is first (88.1 per cent).
But at home, those rankings crater to No. 29 for the power play (14.1 per cent) and No. 28 for the PK (77.9 per cent). Predictably, the Heat’s regular-season record on the road (24-11-0-3) was far better than at home (18-15-3-2), though they’ve been much improved at the AESC over the past month.
Ward can’t put his finger on exactly why the special teams disparity has occurred, but noted his team has a stronger identity on the road.
“It’s like Ruth’s Chris Steak House,” Ward said with a chuckle, referring to the American restaurant chain.
“When we’re at home, it’s like Old Country Buffet – you don’t know what the heck you’re getting. You can go and eat a million different things. Ruth’s Chris is a la carte – you’re getting the steak, that’s it.
“We’re two different teams (home and away).”
Rheault said the special teams schism doesn’t really register with the players.
“I don’t think anyone’s thinking, ‘Oh man, special teams at home aren’t very good,'” he said. “It’s not in our minds, and that’s a good thing. You can’t get too wrapped up in those types of statistics.”