The Abbotsford Heat are locked in a dogfight for a playoff berth, and Jim Playfair made sure the urgency of the situation was impressed on his players on Wednesday morning.
About 40 minutes into practice at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre, the Heat head coach called an abrupt end to the proceedings.
“We have eight games in 12 days coming up, and I just felt the team was not where they should be in terms of practice habits,” Playfair explained. “I felt if we got off the ice today, we could reload and place the emphasis and focus on the game Friday night.”
Friday’s game, against the Hamilton Bulldogs (7:30 p.m., AESC), marks the unofficial start of the home stretch for the Heat. All 13 games to wrap up the regular season are against North Division foes.
Controlling their own destiny is a positive for the Heat (32-26-4-5, 73 points), as they need to climb the standings in a hurry. They’re sixth out of seven teams in the North, but they’re just seven points behind the first place Manitoba Moose in the jam-packed division.
There’s also the crossover to consider. The West Division has eight teams, and if that division’s fifth-place finisher ends up with more points than the North’s fourth-place outfit, they’d claim the North’s fourth and final playoff berth. The way the standings are shaking down, it appears quite likely that the Heat will need to finish in the top three in their division to qualify for the post-season.
Upping the degree of difficulty for the Heat is the fact their roster is being decimated by injuries and call-ups.
An injury to Calgary Flames forward David Moss prompted the NHL parent club to summon Ales Kotalik from Abbotsford on Wednesday. Kotalik had been absolutely on fire with the Heat, posting 19 points in 18 AHL games, and he joins Lance Bouma in Calgary. Bouma was recalled last Friday.
“Kotalik is where he should be – in the NHL,” Playfair said. “I think he’s got the confidence from playing down here, and the experience of playing in the National Hockey League, that he’ll be able to contribute offensively, which I think is really important to the Flames.”
The injury bug is also feasting on the Heat. Cam Cunning’s left knee injury is long-term, and Matt Pelech was the latest casualty after taking a slap shot off the jaw at Wednesday’s practice.
Forward Ryan Stone won’t be available for Friday’s game – he’s headed back to Calgary for his grandfather’s funeral. He’ll be back for Saturday’s rematch with Hamilton, but the Heat will likely call up a forward from the ECHL to fill in.
Carter Bancks (concussion) has been practicing with the team, wearing a non-contact jersey, but it’s unlikely he’d be available for the weekend. Stefan Meyer (hip/back) was a full participant in practice, and he’s expected to be in the lineup Friday.
“I think the onus falls on the players who are in the lineup to take it upon themselves as a personal challenge to stick to the system details, compete hard with character and courage, and give us a chance to play in the playoffs,” Playfair said.