For hockey purists who enjoy watching a good backcheck or a gritty shot block as much as a goal, Friday’s tilt between the Abbotsford Heat and the Toronto Marlies was one for the time capsule.
The sound of the puck hitting shin pads was the soundtrack as two of the AHL’s better defensive teams slugged it out before 4,150 fans at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
Ultimately, a poised 23-save performance from Danny Taylor was the difference in a 3-0 Heat victory, as he came out ahead in an first-rate goaltending duel with Marlies counterpart Ben Scrivens.
With the win, Abbotsford locked up the fourth seed in the Western Conference, along with home-ice advantage in the first round of the post-season.
“It was a playoff-like game,” said Taylor, whose fifth shutout of the season put him one back of league leader Ben Bishop of the Binghamton Senators. “You could tell from the very first few plays that the fans were into it, our guys were into it, they were into it. It was one of those games you want to be a part of and love to play.”
The Marlies, in an odd statistical twist, came in with both the AHL’s best penalty kill (88.2 per cent) and the worst power play (14.1 per cent). Both those trends held true on Friday, as the visitors kept the Heat off the scoreboard on both of their man-advantage opportunities, while failing to score on any of their three power plays.
The Heat’s penalty kill set the defensive tone in the first period, after captain Quintin Laing took a run at Toronto’s Will Acton. The five-minute major for boarding was mistakenly assessed to Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond, but regardless, the Heat killed it off, along with an interference minor to Joe Piskula shortly thereafter.
After that seven-minute defensive stand, Hugh Jessiman supplied all the offence the hosts would need with a tremendous individual effort.
Jessiman chased down Acton behind the Marlies net, used his 6’6″ frame to separate Acton from the puck, then beat Scrivens on a wrap-around at 16:29 of the opening frame.
Taylor’s best stop of the night came just past the midway point of the third period. On a two-on-two rush, Marlies forward Ryan Hamilton jumped into the play and took a centering feed as he came steaming into the slot. His quick-release wrister was headed for the top corner, but Taylor drew oohs and aahs from the crowd with an acrobatic glove save.
Jon Rheault gave the Heat some insurance with 5:37 remaining. Ben Walter wheeled into the slot and whipped a backhand pass that deflected to Rheault at the far side of the net, and he chipped the puck past Scrivens.
Marlies coach Dallas Eakins summoned Scrivens to the bench in favour of an extra attacker with just under three minutes left. But Heat blueliner Clay Wilson’s clearing attempt from deep in his own zone rolled all the way down into the empty net to round out the scoring.
With the playoffs on the horizon, the Heat seem to be peaking at the right time – they’ve gone 7-0-1 over their last eight games.
• The Marlies are the AHL’s stingiest defensive team, and they succeeded in snapping Heat forward Krys Kolanos’s seven-game point streak. Kolanos had 18 points (11 goals, seven assists) during that stretch, and is the AHL’s reigning player of the week.
• The Heat and Marlies renew hostilities on Sunday (1 p.m., AESC) in the final regular season game for both teams. Abbotsford is locked into the No. 4 seed, and head coach Troy Ward indicated he may rest some veterans.
“You’d like to get some players in, but at the same time, we’ve got some good momentum and we want to keep that,” Ward said.
Leland Irving, who was unavailable for three games last week due to the birth of his first child, will start in goal.