The Abbotsford Heat’s goaltending situation isn’t a simmering controversy on par with that of the Vancouver Canucks, where fans have been divided as to whether they’d like to see the local NHL team start Roberto Luongo or Cory Schneider.
But as the Heat prepare to embark on their first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Admirals – Game 1 goes Friday in Wisconsin – head coach Troy Ward has an intriguing decision to make between Leland Irving and Danny Taylor.
Back on March 29, in the wake of a 5-4 shootout loss to the Chicago Wolves, Ward indicated Irving would be the go-to guy for the stretch drive. At the time, it seemed like a fairly standard choice – Irving, the Heat’s team MVP in 2010-11, has established himself as the No. 2 goalie in the Calgary Flames organization this season, and was called up three times in the second half to make spot starts in relief of Miikka Kiprusoff.
But circumstances change, and it’s Taylor who has been the better goalie in Abbotsford of late.
With Irving and wife Ashley welcoming their first child on April 5, Taylor made five straight starts and won all of them, posting a 1.19 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage during that stretch. Over his last 13 starts, Taylor has sustained just one regulation defeat.
Irving, meanwhile, has struggled with consistency under adverse conditions – bouncing between the AHL and NHL while balancing the stress of impending fatherhood. He went 4-4-1 with a 3.55 goals against average and an .875 save percentage in the month of March.
The Swan Hills, Alta. native saw his first game action in over two weeks on Sunday against the Toronto Marlies, and allowed four goals on 22 shots in a 5-4 overtime win.
On Monday, after the Heat’s final home-ice practice before flying to Milwaukee, Ward said he hadn’t settled on a Game 1 starter yet.
As to the criteria he’d consider in making the decision, the Heat bench boss said it would be merit-based. But he cautioned not to read too much into that.
“With merit said, it would be like, ‘Oh, you’re playing Taylor?'” Ward said, anticipating the next question from reporters. “Well, not necessarily.
“We have to look at how we managed our games against Milwaukee, how we stack up against Milwaukee, who’s played in goal, how have we played when those guys have been in goal, how has their team changed since the last time we played them. There’s just a lot of variables that go into making the right decision.”
Taylor and Irving seem to get along well, and neither player framed the situation in adversarial terms.
“Regardless of who it is, I think this team has every bit of confidence in both of us, that we’re going to get the job done,” Taylor said. “Me and Irv are practicing like we’ll play Game 1, and we’ll find out going forward.”
Irving said he felt good between the pipes on Sunday, considering the layoff.
“We play every game and work hard all summer for this moment,” he said, speaking of the playoffs. “Everyone’s excited, and you’ve just got to find that next level and be ready whenever you’re called upon.”
Heat goalie Leland Irving, pictured above in action against the San Antonio Rampage, has battled consistency issues during a recent period of professional and personal transition.