The first overtime playoff game in Abbotsford Heat franchise history was the definition of sudden death.
Toronto Marlies centre Mike Zigomanis whacked a rebound past Heat goalie Danny Taylor on the power play at 9:02 of OT, lifting the Marlies to a 3-2 victory at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
The Marlies clinched the second-round series in five games, while the Heat’s season is over.
“To end the way it did, it kind of stings for everybody in the room,” Heat defenceman J.P. Testwuide acknowledged in the aftermath. “The men wearing the Heat jerseys gave it everything they had every shift. From the drop of the puck, you saw it.
“It’s a defeat, it’s not a failure. We’re really proud of the way we played.”
After failing to score more than one goal any of the previous three games – all losses – the Heat got off to a great start on Wednesday.
On the penalty kill, Paul Byron snuck behind the Marlies defence to take a breakaway pass from Jon Rheault, and he blistered a glove-side slap shot past Toronto goalie Ben Scrivens.
Krys Kolanos, the Heat’s leading scorer, was a healthy scratch for Abbotsford’s 3-1 loss in Game 4 after mustering just one assist over the first three games of the series. Reinserted into the lineup for Game 5, he wasted little time making his presence felt, tracking down the rebound off Adam Estoclet’s initial shot and roofing a shot over a sprawling Scrivens at 13:30 of the first period.
But the Marlies got on the board just over a minute later, as blueliner Jake Gardiner’s shot from the left point found its way through a crowd and went in off the post behind Taylor.
In the second period, the Heat had several golden opportunities to restore to two-goal margin, only to be stymied by Scrivens. On one shift, Byron and Dustin Sylvester found themselves all alone in front of the Marlies net on separate occasions, but Scrivens denied both their shots.
Later, on a Marlies power play with Carter Bancks in the box for high sticking, Byron blew by Gardiner and had a partial breakaway, but Scrivens got a piece of his low shot.
Just after Bancks stepped out of the box, Toronto tied it. Ryan Hamilton fed Matt Frattin in front, and his one-timer squeezed between Taylor’s legs and dribbled across the goal line.
A scoreless third period set the stage for OT, and both teams had their chances.
Marlies forward Nazem Kadri had a golden opportunity to end it, as he had the puck on his stick at the right edge of the crease. But Taylor sprawled to get a glove on the shot.
At the other end, Scrivens made a big save on Kolanos after he wheeled into the slot and fired a wrist shot, and later, Byron lost the puck on a two-on-one break with Dustin Sylvester.
In the end, it was a shame that a rather soft penalty call played a major role in the outcome – referee Terry Koharski whistled Heat forward Hugh Jessiman for a high-sticking call in front of the Abby net.
Twelve seconds later, it was over. Kadri lobbed a shot from the blueline that Taylor stopped, but Zigomanis was johnny-on-the-spot to chip in the rebound.
“It kind of just laid there for me and I whacked away at it,” he said, recounting the goal. “Nothing special. I’m not a goal scorer so if I get the odd one here and there I’m very happy.”
Heat defenceman Clay Wilson said his team’s demise was “frustrating.”
“I think we had a team that could have gone a lot further,” he explained. “We had a great group of guys in there, and it’s just disappointing.”
Zigomanis had been on the ice prior to the Jessiman penalty, but Marlies coach Dallas Eakins wanted him on the ice to take the crucial offensive-zone faceoff to start the power play, and called a timeout to give him a breather.
Zigomanis went out and won the draw, then headed to the front of the net to break the hearts of Heat fans.
“He’s a leader, he’s a guy who’s probably 75-80 per cent on faceoffs over a whole season,” Eakins said of Zigomanis. “When the game’s on the line this year, a lot of times he’s the guy who stepped up and done it for us.”
Toronto had mustered just one power-play goal in the series prior to Zigomanis’s series-winner.
The Heat, meanwhile, were unable to manufacture a man-advantage goal – they went 0-for-3 on the night, and 0-for-24 in the series against the Marlies’ top-ranked penalty killers.
“Tonight we had opportunities and we didn’t bury them,” Wilson said. “But they did, and that was kind of the story of the series.”
The Heat drew just 1,360 fans to the game – the smallest crowd of the season. But those hardcore supporters stuck around afterward to cheer their team for the last time, and the players saluted them by raising their sticks.
“We realize that the American Hockey League playoffs aren’t very well-attended,” Heat head coach Troy Ward said, alluding to the fact that AHL average attendance is down more than 1,000 fans per game in the post-season compared to the regular season – the expiration of season tickets being a big factor.
“But walking off the ice with that crowd, regardless of the size of it but with the enthusiasm they gave the players and the players paying their respect back, I felt we’ve found a home. I think people know we’re here.”
In the post-game handshake line, Eakins paid Ward and his team a huge compliment.
“He said, ‘You’re the hardest team we played all year,'” Ward revealed. “He said, ‘You should be proud.'”
Heat goalie Danny Taylor smothers the puck with Marlies forward Jerry D’Amigo lurking on the doorstep. (John Morrow photo)