3D is generally a good thing at the movie theatre.
But playing three D out of position at forward is not typically a recipe for success in pro hockey.
That’s precisely the predicament the Abbotsford Heat found themselves in on Sunday afternoon. Decimated by injuries and NHL recalls, the AHL club dressed nine defencemen against the Chicago Wolves, with three of them playing up front.
They lost by a 4-1 count at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre – hardly a stunning outcome given the circumstances. But the hosts actually acquitted themselves rather well despite the makeshift lineup.
The Heat out-shot the Wolves 29-19 and generated a boatload of high-quality scoring chances in the second and third periods, but Chicago goalie Matt Climie sparkled en route to first star honours.
Abbotsford’s goaltending didn’t measure up to Climie’s standard – Heat starter Olivier Roy got the hook for the second straight night, departing 14 minutes into the first period after surrendering two goals on the Wolves’ first three shots.
Backup Aaron Dell stopped 11 of 13 shots after coming on in relief, as the Heat (33-21-7, 73 points) suffered their eighth straight defeat and fell three points back of the Wolves (35-18-6, 76 points) for fourth place in the Western Conference.
Abbotsford head coach Troy Ward, having lost the services of Sven Baertschi and Turner Elson to injury this week and with seven recent members of the Heat up with the Calgary Flames, had the option of dressing eight blueliners instead of nine on Sunday. But he elected to scratch forward Jordan Knackstedt – signed out of the ECHL on Friday – because he preferred to face adversity with the players who have been with the team on a longer-term basis.
“I just felt it was important that our group stayed together during this tough time,” he explained. “Knackstedt is only going to be here a few days, and we’re hopefully going to get some players back this week from Calgary.
“So come hell or high water, I was going to play nine D today.”
The three D up front were Derek Smith, who was in the starting lineup on the left wing with Corey Locke and Josh Jooris, and Kane Lafranchise and Brady Lamb, who skated on the fourth line with Brett Lyon.
The Heat didn’t give up much in the way of scoring chances during an exceedingly defensive-minded first period which saw Chicago out-shoot them by a 5-3 margin.
But the Wolves were nothing if not efficient, and got goals from Alex Bolduc and Cody Beach less than three minutes apart to chase Roy.
They gave Dell a rude welcome, too, as Dmitrij Jaskin scored just over two minutes after he entered the game.
The Heat were the better team from that point, and got on the board in the second period courtesy one of their repurposed blueliners. Evan Trupp chipped the puck ahead to Lamb, and he split the defence, caught up to the puck and deftly flicked it over Climie’s shoulder.
It was a legitimately sweet offensive play from a stay-at-home blueliner whose experience playing forward is extremely limited.
“I think I played three games of forward when I was 14, and maybe when I was five, I don’t know – it’s been a long time,” Lamb said.
“I’ve been spending 21 years playing D now, and every single player on the ice is usually in front of me.
“It’s a bit of a change there, trying to figure out where everyone is going and trying to get on the same page with my linemates. Lots of guys on the team have been giving me advice here and there, and it’s helped.”
The Heat had several other terrific looks at Climie, but the Wolves goalie was up to the task. He particularly bedevilled Trupp, who had at least three point-blank chances but was denied each time.
Chicago’s Tyler Shattock rounded out the scoring, converting a cross-crease pass from Pat Cannone at 8:38 of the third period.
“(Climie) is a good goalie over there,” Trupp said. “I got pretty good setups from my linemates too. He had my number, that’s for sure.
“Being snakebitten is tough because you can’t go into every game thinking ‘I haven’t scored in so many games.’ You kind of have to forget about that and keep trying to shoot the puck and eventually the bounces will go my way.
“We don’t want negativity to creep into our locker room, and it’s hard when you’re on a losing slump like this.”
The Heat’s effort in defeat drew praise from Wolves coach John Anderson.
“That fourth goal really put a crimp in them a bit and three goals in the first throws you back for a loop a bit,” he noted. “But I have to give them credit, they did not quit. They played better than we did tonight, quite honestly. They were a bit more disciplined than us. We need certain guys to come up big for us and Matt Climie was the guy tonight.”
Ward said he’s never been in a situation in his coaching career where he’s felt compelled to play three defencemen up front.
“If I even go back to the mid-90s when I was in the IHL . . . I remember some weird stuff, but I don’t remember ever playing three D up front, one as your starting left wing,” he said with a wry chuckle.
“We’ve played Chicago three times now in the last two weeks, and we’ve played three of the four games with a minimum of eight D in the lineup.”
The Heat, after six games in nine days, have some much-needed time off this week – their next games are Friday and Saturday vs. the Utica Comets, the Vancouver Canucks affiliate (7 p.m. both nights, AESC).
“The biggest thing they are is, we’re extremely tired . . . we’re literally out of gas,” Ward said. “But they’re really upbeat, they’re pretty good. They’re wounded, some guys physically – and mentally a little bit, because they’re not getting their goals. But they’re doing great.
“I’m truly blessed for the team I have. You wouldn’t know in that room that we’ve lost . . . eight straight.
“We’re very mature about our business, very professional, and understand what’s at stake.”