The Abbotsford Heat’s six-game point streak on home ice died of self-inflicted wounds on Friday evening.
The Heat stumbled out of the gate and couldn’t quite recover, as they dropped a 4-3 decision to the Grand Rapids Griffins before 3,165 spectators at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
The hosts put forth a listless performance in the first period, falling behind 2-0 while the Griffins registered 10 consecutive shots on goal at one juncture. Two of those found their way past Abby starting goalie Danny Taylor, and he got the hook just over 12 minutes into the opening frame.
The Heat (22-10-2-0) mustered stretches of offensive pressure in the second and third periods, but gaffes at inopportune moments – and big saves by Griffins keeper Joey MacDonald – derailed the comeback bid.
“It’s hard to win in pro hockey when you don’t get off to a good start,” Heat head coach Troy Ward observed afterward.
“Even when we had some pushes, I didn’t feel like anyone behind me in the stands was like, ‘Oh, they’re coming.’ We were disjointed all night.”
The mood was more upbeat down the hall, as the Griffins (14-13-4-2) celebrated their first-ever victory at the AESC. The Heat had beaten the Detroit Red Wings farm team four times in Abbotsford over the previous two seasons.
“It’s nice to use Abbotsford as a measuring stick to see where we are in our game,” Grand Rapids head coach Curt Fraser said, alluding to the fact the Heat are second overall in the AHL. “It was important to get off to a great start and play the best game of the year we could muster up.”
Griffins forward Tomas Tatar opened the scoring at 8:53 of the first period, as he followed up his own shot on the rush and chipped the rebound over Taylor.
Francis Pare chased Taylor from the Heat crease at the 12:05 mark on an odd goal. From the far side of the centre line, Griffins defenceman Garnet Exelby shot the puck off the end boards to Taylor’s right. The Heat keeper couldn’t seem to decide whether to play the puck or stay in his crease, and he was caught in the middle as Pare won a race for the loose puck and whacked a shot past a startled Taylor.
That snafu prompted Heat head coach Troy Ward to give backup goalie Joni Ortio his first game action since Nov. 29.
Jon Rheault trimmed the deficit in half at 3:37 of the second, taking a slick feed from Ben Walter and wristing home a shot from the slot. But less than three minutes later, the Griffins struck on the power play, as Brian Lashoff’s shot from the high slot eluded Ortio.
Greg Nemisz notched his eighth of the season to draw the Heat back to within one, but two B.C. boys combined on a pretty goal to restore the two-goal cushion late in the middle frame.
Willie Coetzee, who grew up in Maple Ridge, found a hard-charging Landon Ferraro with a sweet pass across the goalmouth, and the Trail native whacked the puck into a wide-open net. Landon’s father Ray, a longtime NHLer and high-profile hockey commentator, was in attendance at the AESC to see his son’s fifth goal of the season.
“I coached Ray Ferraro in Atlanta, and now I’ve got his son – I think I’m getting pretty old,” Fraser said with a chuckle. “Landon’s doing a heck of a job for us. He’s a great young player, a talented kid, and it’s great to see his dad in the building when he scores a goal.”
Rheault’s second of the game, with 2:29 to go in the third, gave the Heat a ray of hope, but MacDonald and the Griffins hung on. MacDonald counted several highlight-reel efforts among his 27 saves, including a sprawling stop on Rheault earlier in the third period with a score 4-2.
“Joey was fantastic,” Fraser said. “He was out with a concussion for a while, and he’s been working to get his game back to where it was. This was the first good step in the right direction.”
The absence of the Heat’s top puck-moving defencemen, Clay Wilson and Brendan Mikkelson, was glaring. Wilson is up with the Calgary Flames, while Mikkelson was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday morning.
In their absence, Ward went with five forwards on the first power-play unit – Rheault, Nemisz, Krys Kolanos, Ben Walter and Quintin Laing – but the Heat went 0-for-4 on the man advantage.
“When you have your one-two punch on the power play and all of a sudden they’re not here, that took a lot of wind out of our sails,” noted Ward, whose team’s power play was ranked sixth in the AHL heading into Friday’s action.
“We put Walter back there (on the point), and as good as Ben is, he didn’t look very good back there, to be honest with you.”
Ward attributed some of the Heat’s struggles to rust. Nemisz and defenceman Brett Carson hadn’t played much recently after being sent down by the Calgary Flames on Thursday, and Carter Bancks suited up for his first game since Nov. 19 – the lengthy absence caused by a hand injury.
“It was exciting to have some guys back, but as we went through that process, I knew we wouldn’t be real sharp,” Ward analyzed.
“We couldn’t function like a well-oiled machine. We had parts out of our engine, and you put them back in, and that car needs to get on the highway a go a while before it’s going to run (well). We weren’t really running. It was like a car on the side street that’s kind of putzing along.”
Kolanos was, as usual, a bright spot for the Heat. The slick winger, named an AHL all-star earlier in the week, assisted on all three Abbotsford goals. He’s been particularly deadly against Grand Rapids this season, with 10 points in just three games.
“Usually he’s a shooter, but he made some nice passes out there,” observed Walter, Kolanos’s linemate. “He’s the kind of guy who gets a lot of our offence, and I’m sure other teams have a game plan to try to shut him down. But he just takes it, and he keeps scoring and making things happen.”
• The Heat and Griffins renew hostilities on Saturday evening (7 p.m., AESC).
• Prior to Friday’s regulation-time defeat, the Heat had garnered points in their last six home games, going 5-0-1 over that span.
• The Flames re-assigned veteran tough guy Raitis Ivanans to the Heat on Friday morning, but he did not dress.
• Heat forward Ryan Howse headed to the locker room after a second-period collision and did not return. Ward had no specific update on his status post-game.
“He probably won’t play for a while, that’s all I know,” Ward said.