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News and notes: Heat aim to reverse their fortunes vs. Canucks affiliate
The Abbotsford Heat and Utica Comets have been at opposite ends of the AHL standings throughout the 2013-14 campaign, but you'd never guess based on their recent head-to-head match-ups.
The Comets (13-20-5), Western Conference cellar-dwellers all season long, have been awfully hard on the Heat, despite the fact that Abbotsford (26-14-2) has occupied the upper reaches of the standings.
The Heat won their first two games vs. the Vancouver Canucks' new affiliate this season, but the Comets have since fashioned a four-game win streak vs. Abbotsford, including three victories in regulation.
Heat head coach Troy Ward believes a variety of factors have played into his team's recent results against Utica. The Comets are a big, physical, veteran outfit, and as such are a tough match-up for Abby's smallish forward corps. There's also a timing factor – the Heat's recent dates vs. Utica have coincided with team slumps and NHL recalls.
Ward also believes his squad has played better at times against the Comets than the final score has indicated – on Dec. 20, for instance, the coaching staff had the scoring chances at 12-8 for the Heat, but they lost 3-0 with an empty-net goal.
"It becomes almost a mental thing, like, 'Oh here we go, it's Utica, we suck against these guys,'" Ward said earlier this week, looking ahead to Friday-Saturday match-ups with the Comets at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre (7 p.m. start both nights).
"It isn't like they've dominated us. It's just timeliness of goals, our maturity level, and the fact we've played them when we haven't been all that healthy mentally."
"The best way I can say it is, they're a professional hockey team with professional athletes, and so are we. You've got to be ready for everybody, and anybody can beat anybody on a given night."
SCHROEDER TO SUIT UP FOR COMETS
Both teams have received significant reinforcements from their NHL parent clubs within the past week.
The Canucks sent centre Jordan Schroeder to the Comets on Thursday on a conditioning assignment, and he'll play both games vs. the Heat this weekend. He's been sidelined since mid-October with a broken ankle.
Vaclav Prospal, a 38-year-old veteran forward who has 16 NHL seasons under his belt, also appeared poised to suit up for the Comets this weekend – he was set to sign a 25-game professional tryout (PTO) contract, with the idea that he could be summoned by the Canucks after an eight- to 10-game evaluation period at the AHL level. Prospal, though, elected to retire on Friday morning.
The Heat, meanwhile, got offensive-minded defenceman Derek Smith from the Calgary Flames on Sunday, after blueliner Kris Russell was activated from the injured reserve.
Additionally, the Heat added centre Corey Locke from the Chicago Wolves on Thursday afternoon, with defenceman Mark Cundari going the other way in the transaction.
FERLAND OUT FOR SEASON
Part of the rationale for the Locke transaction had to do with the erosion of the Heat's depth of front, highlighted by two significant departures recently.
Last Thursday, veteran centre Steve Begin announced his retirement via Twitter.
Yesterday the doc gave me a sad news...I won't have the chance to be back playing this year. 1/5— steve begin (@begs22) January 16, 2014
This news sadly puts an end to my hockey carreer. Yes, for the first time I will listen to my body. 2/5— steve begin (@begs22) January 16, 2014
The 35-year-old had signed an AHL contract with the Heat over the summer, and was regarded as a potential team captain, but he never played a game for Abbotsford due to a hip injury. The gritty veteran closes the book on a career which included 524 NHL games, spent primarily with the Flames and the Montreal Canadiens.
Last Saturday, also via Twitter, the Heat confirmed what had been feared for some time – that sophomore winger Michael Ferland's knee injury will require season-ending surgery.
Ferland suffered the injury during practice just prior to Christmas, and it's a devastating turn of events for a player who was finally starting to put it together at the pro level.
The Swan River, Man. native struggled last season as a rookie pro, spending time in the ECHL before being sent back to junior.
This season, he failed to register a point in his first 11 games before catching fire, racking up six goals and 12 assists for 18 points in his next 14 games. Ferland (6'2", 215 pounds) also played with a physical edge, and arguably stood to gain more than any other forward prospect after Brian Burke took over as the Flames' acting GM and issued a call for more truculence.
"It's a tragic loss to our team, and it's tragic for him in his development," Ward noted. "Things were going real well, and this is a kid who had a lot of roadblocks along the way, whether they were self-imposed or injury-imposed.
"Since he's left, we've missed his size and his speed, for sure – it's glaring," Ward added. "But God is going to try to tell him this is something you've got to battle through and come back. . . . I think this will help his game eventually, and it'll help his maturity for sure."
NO CELEBRATION AT CENTURY MARK
The Heat's 3-2 OT win on Jan. 11 vs. the San Antonio Rampage was Ward's 100th as head coach of the club, but he was in no mood for celebration or reflection.
And that's no great surprise to those who spend any amount of time around the Abby bench boss, who is far more concerned with the process than results.
"It's one more than 99," he said with a shrug. "If we don't finish every day 1-and-0, it's hard to get 100 – it's hard to get 10.
"I think it just represents the standard of the program . . . I'm only a byproduct of my players."
FOSTER, LAFRANCHISE OUT
The Heat welcomed defenceman Zach McKelvie back to practice this week. He's been sidelined since Dec. 11 due to a lower-body injury.
That leaves two Heat players still in the sick bay. Forward Adrian Foster and defenceman Kane Lafranchise both sustained lower-body injuries of their own during the recent six-game road trip. Ward said they're expected to be out for a matter of weeks rather than days.