Say this for Troy Ward – the man has a guts galore.
With his team facing significant adversity for the first time in the playoffs, the Abbotsford Heat head coach made eyebrow-raising lineup changes that drastically altered the personality of his team for Game 4 against the Toronto Marlies.
Seated in the press box was leading scorer Krys Kolanos, along with rookie centre Max Reinhart and depth defenceman Nick Tuzzolino.
Inserted in their place were forwards Adam Estoclet and Ryan Howse – both suiting up for their first game of the post-season – and veteran blueliner Joe Piskula.
Scratching Kolanos was the true jaw-dropper – the 30-year-old winger being one of the few offensive thoroughbreds on a team loaded with Clydesdales.
And wouldn’t you know it, it almost worked.
Ward’s ground-and-pound lineup did just that, smothering the Marlies in all three zones. They led 1-0 after two periods, and out-shot the visitors 36-17 for the game.
But the Heat were done in by Marlies’ duo of Ben Scrivens and Greg Scott. Toronto goalie Scrivens was outstanding as he has been all series long, turning aside 35 Abbotsford shots.
Scott, a Victoria native, made a pair of high-end offensive plays to give his team the lead in the third period, and he completed the hat trick with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
The Marlies escaped with a 3-1 victory, and now lead the series by the same margin. They have a chance to eliminate the Heat on Wednesday evening (7 p.m., Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre).
“It’s disappointing,” Heat centre Ben Walter acknowledged, “but we don’t really have time to think about it now.
“We’re still a positive group. We still believe we can win this series, and it starts tomorrow night. We’ve just got to win three in a row, which is something we’ve done several times throughout the year and in the playoffs already.”
Kolanos carved up the Milwaukee Admirals in the first round, racking up four goals and four assists to lead the Heat to a sweep in the best-of-five series. But he’d been silenced by the Marlies in Round 2, mustering just one assist over the first three games.
Ward, quizzed as to his reasoning for sitting Kolanos, called it an “internal issue.”
“All I can say is, it’s something we had to deal with, and we dealt with it,” he said. “We have our standards.
“He sat his game for his issues. He’ll play tomorrow.”
Even without Kolanos, the Heat dominated the Marlies from the opening faceoff on Tuesday. They out-shot Toronto 10-3 in the first period, and it took the visitors more than 17 minutes to register their second shot on goal.
But the Heat had nothing to show for it thanks to Scrivens, who made a highlight-reel left pad save on a point-blank redirection by Estoclet late in the frame.
The Heat broke through at 9:29 of the second, though, as Estoclet forced a turnover in the Marlies’ zone and the puck came to Ben Walter along the side boards. He fired a wrist shot that Hugh Jessiman deflected past Scrivens.
Early in the third, Scott leveled the score, cruising down the right wing and unleashing a picture-perfect wrist shot that found the top corner over the glove of Heat goalie Danny Taylor.
Abbotsford was looking to reclaim the lead on the power play, but Scott snuck behind Clay Wilson to take a breakaway pass from Juraj Mikus. Going left to right, he held the puck and tucked it inside the far post on Taylor.
The Heat had their chances to draw even. Jessiman wheeled out of the corner with a Marlies defender draped all over him and fired a low wrist shot that Scrivens got his left toe on. And in the final minute, Walter’s slap shot from the top of the left circle found its way between Scrivens’s left arm and his body, but caught enough of his jersey to dribble wide.
Scott sealed the deal with an empty-netter with 28.7 seconds left.
“I liked our focus,” Ward analyzed afterward. “I liked what we did offensively to put pucks (to the net) and get bodies there. But we didn’t get rewarded, and that’s a tough thing.
“People that have watched us all year know this has been a common problem at home for us. We’ve really dominated five-on-five against some teams territorially. We don’t oftentimes get rewarded at home for it, and we give up a lot of first-chance goals.”
The Heat power play still has yet to click in the series – after an 0-for-5 performance on Tuesday, they’ve now come up empty on 21 man-advantage chances against the Marlies’ top-ranked penalty killers.
“We’ve got to have that extra gear and finish,” Heat winger Jon Rheault acknowledged. “We believe that we can score goals. I had plenty of chances that I need to bear down and finish for our team, and I’m sure there’s a lot of other guys in the locker room who are thinking the same thing. We’ve just got to keep getting pucks to the net, and traffic.”
Scott came in without a goal in the playoffs, and felt he was “overdue.”
“I just put my head down and closed my eyes, and luckily it went in,” he said, recounting his first goal. “I just wanted to get the puck down there and I wanted to shoot. Luckily for me I got a couple breaks, and hopefully I can get some more.”
Scrivens’s playoff stats are simply sparkling – he boasts a 1.58 goals against average and a .945 save percentage, to go with a 6-1 record.
He said he wasn’t aware of Kolanos’s absence until the game was halfway through.
“I’m kind of oblivious to their lineup,” he explained. “I just face each shot as it is. I’m sure everyone else knew it and adjusted accordingly. But he’s a big part of their offence. He’s definitely the straw that stirs their drinks. I don’t anticipate him to be out too long.”
Of the Marlies’ lights-out PK, Scrivens said his teammates are making life difficult for the Heat’s skill guys.
“That’s the key right now – we’re forcing them to make the most difficult play possible,” he said.
Heat goalie Danny Taylor makes a save on Marlies forward Philippe Dupuis. (John Morrow photo)