Call it a good jog spoiled.
Early Monday morning, Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward was out for a run when the cold reality of a playoff-free spring hit him head-on.
Later in the day, his players would take turns filing into his office for individual exit meetings, then say their goodbyes to each other, haul their gear out of the locker room and disperse for the summer.
Meanwhile, 16 other AHL clubs would be preparing for the Calder Cup playoffs.
“I’m telling you, it was pure anger,” Ward said, “just the fact that this team, the team we had the first half, obviously we felt good enough to play into the playoffs.
“But in the second half, it didn’t come to fruition. When you have a time to just reflect and you’re out sweating and running in the beautiful world we live in here in B.C., it becomes really frustrating.”
When they woke up on Dec. 1, with precisely one quarter of the AHL season in their rearview mirror, the Heat were breathing rarefied air atop the overall standings.
Their stunning slide down to 12th place in the Western Conference saw the roster eroded by injuries and recalls – particularly after the NHL lockout ended in January – and regression of the lights-out goaltending and special-teams performances that had marked their scorching start.
Putting the puck in the net was the most glaring struggle – Abbotsford mustered just 171 goals (2.25 per game). Only the Hamilton Bulldogs (159 goals) scored fewer.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing,” Heat captain Quintin Laing said, reflecting on a season which ended with 1-0 and 7-3 road losses to the Oklahoma City Barons on the weekend.
“I wish we could have done more with what we had, but that’s the nature of the business. You go into a scoring slump, and the losses start piling up a little bit, and it just snowballs. It’s something we didn’t recover from quickly enough.”
The Heat sat at 13-2-4 at end of November, but a pair of prolonged slumps did them in.
They started stumbling in December, going 3-7-3 with rookie sensation Sven Baertschi sidelined due to injury.
The Abby club appeared to right itself with a five-game win streak in mid-January, but they went back into a tailspin, going 3-12-2 over a rough 17-game stretch bridging February and March. That slump coincided with the decimation of the defensive corps following the lockout, No. 1 goalie Danny Taylor’s signing and recall by the Flames, and the fact that 12 of those games were on the road, scheduled in a compressed fashion.
Ward’s analysis was that the grueling second-half travel schedule wore his group down, and he felt the end of the lockout impacted the Heat more than other AHL clubs.
“That was a significant blow to this particular team,” he said. “Some parts of our team fell apart at that particular time that carried us through the first half.”
“We knew it was going to be an up-and-down season, just with the fact that the NHL was going to start at some point and we were going to lose guys for however long,” centre Ben Walter noted. “Then we ran into some injuries, and that didn’t help. And some of our longer road trips we didn’t do too well, and just weren’t able to get the points we needed to get.
“We were waiting for that last little up to give us that push into the playoffs. We just couldn’t find it this year.”
Post-season disappointment aside, there were moments to savour.
Goalie Barry Brust broke Johnny Bower’s 55-year-old AHL record for longest shutout streak, keeping opposing teams from scoring for a remarkable stretch of 268 minutes, 17 seconds.
And on Nov. 1 vs. the Toronto Marlies, the Heat’s Steve McCarthy and Ben Street scored twice in three seconds to set an AHL record for the fastest two goals by the same team, and a pro hockey record for fastest two shorthanded goals.
“You just treasure those for life,” Ward said. “I’m not so sure the Ben Street thing will ever be broken. That’s really tough to do.”
And among the developmental success stories, Street, Max Reinhart, Mark Cundari and Carter Bancks played their first NHL games, Taylor made his first big-league start, and T.J. Brodie looks to be blossoming into an elite NHL defenceman.
“That’s what we’re here to do,” Ward said. “You’re glad to know those guys are getting opportunities and they’re doing well.”