Nearly 7,000 screaming middle school students gave the Abbotsford Heat a jolt of energy during a rare morning game, but the Texas Stars weathered a strong start by the hosts and won 3-1.
The defeat extended Abbotsford’s losing streak to a season-high five games, and they fell four points back of the Stars for first place in both the West Division and Western Conference standings.
Despite the result, the Heat were very pleased with elements of their performance – they allowed very little by way of scoring chances to the top-scoring team in the Western Conference, and gave the Stars’ league-leading power play just one man-advantage opportunity.
The Heat’s own offence, though, wasn’t able to get much done.
“I thought it was a great game from both sides,” said Sven Baertschi, who scored the Heat’s lone goal in the first period. “It was up and down, and great speed, too. It was a lot of fun to play today.
“We just couldn’t put the puck in. I don’t think we had too many great chances – we were on the puck a lot, but in the end, they played some good D.”
The official attendance number for the Heat’s annual school day game was 6,827, and the energy at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre was terrific. The kids counted down the clock, not only at the end of periods, but also during warm-ups. They did the wave. They knew every lyric to “What Does the Fox Say?”
The red-hot Baertschi gave them another reason to cheer – not that they needed it – by opening the scoring at 15:40 of the first period. The Swiss winger had the puck land on his stick on a broken play and picked the top corner on Stars goalie Jack Campbell, giving him five points (two goals, three assists) in his past three games.
But that was all the offence the Heat would muster, and Stars forward Dustin Jeffrey powered the comeback by snapping a season-long scoring slump. Jeffrey entered Tuesday’s game with a grand total of zero goals in 33 games, split nearly evenly between the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dallas Stars and Texas Stars.
He got the monkey off his back with 38.4 seconds left in the first period, parking himself at the top of the crease and tapping in a terrific feed from Brendan Ranford.
Jeffrey made it 2-0 at 8:55 of the second on another sweet look from Ranford – the nephew of former Edmonton Oilers goalie Bill Ranford slipped a drop pass to Jeffrey on the rush, and he one-timed it past Heat keeper Joey MacDonald.
“It’s been a difficult year,” said Jeffrey, who was claimed off waivers from the Penguins by the Dallas Stars in November. “It’s been different experience than I’ve had before.
“To get these two goals is big. I thought I’ve been playing pretty well, helping our team in different ways with the penalty kill and whatever they need, so to contribute this way at a 10:30 a.m. game is big.”
Brett Ritchie added an insurance marker in the third period on a terrific individual effort. He blocked Chad Billins’s shot at the Stars blue line and took off on a breakaway, finishing with a backhander over a sprawling MacDonald.
Ritchie took a boarding penalty with 2:35 left in regulation, and the Heat waved MacDonald over to the bench in favour of an extra attacker. But they weren’t able to get anything going offensively.
“It’s probably the best game we’ve played in a couple months,” Heat head coach Troy Ward asserted. “Overall, systematically, we just did a lot of really nice things. It was a game of match-ups, and not one match-up was ever missed.
“In general, they (the Stars) were opportunistic. We had a couple of those chances, and we didn’t score.”
Strength of schedule is certainly a factor in the Heat’s losing streak – their last five games have been against the Chicago Wolves, Grand Rapids Griffins and the Stars, who are ranked fourth, second and first in the Western Conference, respectively.
“We’re just getting some good hard lessons,” Ward said.
“Even though we’re losing, there’s a lot of good things that are happening. It’s just that what’s dried up compared to early parts of the year is, we’re not getting the goals.”
It’s an interesting time of year in the pro hockey world, as the NHL trade deadline is on Wednesday. With the Calgary Flames firmly in “sell” mode, it will be interesting to see how the Heat are affected. Even if none of the players on the AHL affiliate are involved in deals, there’s a great chance that roster spots could open up in Calgary if/when deals are made.
“Obviously a lot of guys are thinking about it,” Abby defenceman Chris Breen said. “But I’m just trying to block it out – it’s kind of a distraction if you let it be. You try to ignore it the best you can, and whatever happens, happens.”
• The Heat (33-19-6) and Stars (34-16-8) renew hostilities on Wednesday (7 p.m., AESC).
• Markus Granlund, the erstwhile Heat centre currently on recall with the Calgary Flames, was named AHL rookie of the month on Monday after posting five goals and seven assists for 12 points in 10 games in February.
The Abbotsford Heat’s annual school day game drew upwards of 6,800 middle school students. (Mike Haire photo)