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Confidence man: Goalie Ortio's poise sparks the Heat
Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward has a passion for posture.
After a blowout loss, he might grouse at the post-game press conference that he didn't like the Heat's passive posture – evoking a slouching, back-on-the-heels image. After a victory, he'll often credit an aggressive posture within their team structure.
All of this is to illustrate that when Ward refers to goalie Joni Ortio as the team's backbone, it's mighty high praise.
"Our posture changes when he plays," Ward explained, going back to the well for one of his favourite terms.
"Because [his teammates] have confidence in him, they have confidence in themselves."
Confidence is a hard commodity to quantify, but Ortio's impact on the Heat during the 2013-14 season isn't difficult to detect.
The 22-year-old from Turku, Finland carried the load during Abbotsford's hottest stretch of the season – 13 wins in 14 games beginning in late October and extending through most of November.
Conversely, when the Heat endured an eight-game losing skid in late February/early March which dropped them from first place in the Western Conference to fifth, Ortio was conspicuous by his absence – he was on recall with the NHL parent Calgary Flames.
He returned to the Heat in late March, and it's no coincidence that they've righted the ship of late, winning four of their past five games to clinch a playoff spot.
Add it all up, and Ortio's got a compelling case as the Heat's MVP this season, though the players who took turns carrying the team offensively – Ben Street, Chad Billins, Markus Granlund and Max Reinhart among them – might have an argument.
He added an AHL award to his resumé on Wednesday, as he was voted to the league's all-rookie team.
"It's exciting to be recognized like that, but it doesn't just speak to the way I play – it speaks to the whole group," said Ortio, who's posted a 24-8 record with a .924 save percentage (third-best in the AHL) and a 2.37 goals against average (eighth) this season.
"They've been unbelievable throughout the year, making my job that much easier."
That team-oriented approach has been crucial to Ortio's success this season, according to Ward.
"He's matured, these last couple years, beyond belief," Ward explained. "The guys want to play hard for him because of the way he treats them as a man.
"That, to me, is one of the new intangibles of goaltending – does a team want to compete for him? . . . He might be technically a good goalie, but do these guys want to lay down and block a shot for you?"
Ortio was a sixth-round pick by the Flames in 2009 and was Finland's starting goalie at two World Junior Championships, but his introduction to North American pro hockey was a rocky one. In limited action with the Heat during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, he posted a 1-5 record, a 3.36 goals against average and an .876 save percentage.
He made huge strides last season, though, playing in his homeland for HIFK Helsinki. He saw action in 54 of the team's 60 regular season games and backstopped the club to the second round of the SM-liiga playoffs, and the workload helped him hone his consistency.
This season, upon returning to Abbotsford, Ortio encountered some early adversity. After watching from the bench as Reto Berra handled the Heat's first four starts of the campaign, he was assigned to the ECHL's Alaska Aces, with rookie keeper Laurent Brossoit coming up to replace him.
The rationale was to get Ortio some game action while affording Brossoit some instructional time with Heat goalie coach Jordan Sigalet, but the demotion was still less than thrilling.
Ortio excelled, though, posting a 1.01 goals against average and a .944 save percentage in four appearances with the Aces. When he and Brossoit switched places again on Oct. 28 and Berra was recalled by the Flames less than a week later, he was ready to wrest the lion's share of the playing time in Abbotsford away from veteran Joey MacDonald.
"I'll be honest – it's not fun [going to the ECHL]," Ortio acknowledged. "But it's something that management thought was best at that given time. Now, reflecting back on it, getting those games in was probably a good thing. Because when I came back up here, I jumped right back into action. It helped just to get the rhythm going."
In February, a knee injury to Flames starter Karri Ramo opened the door for Ortio's first NHL recall. And when Berra was subsequently sent to the Colorado Avalanche at the trade deadline, he made nine starts, fashioning a 4-4 record with a 2.52 goals against average and an .891 save percentage.
"It's a thing that every kid dreams about when you're little," he said. "It's kind of hard to describe, getting that first (NHL) action. It's something you work for all your career, and it finally comes true.
"It was a ton of fun, for sure, and I felt pretty comfortable out there. That's what I've been feeling like all year – that I'm ready to make that step. I kind of proved myself, that I can actually play up there, and that gave me a lot of confidence moving forward."
After Ramo returned to health, the Flames sent Ortio back to Abbotsford, where his presence has "a calming effect" on the team, Ward said.
"We have a lot of systematical rules . . . this you can do, this you can't do," Ward explained. "When Joni gets in there, instead of black and white, it becomes a little bit grey, if that makes sense.
"We feel we can do different things within the system – we have different little liberties about how we play. That wasn't right away, that developed over time. As his confidence grew, our confidence grew."