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Heat extinguished by Griffins in Game 4
In one fell swoop, the Grand Rapids Griffins ended the Abbotsford Heat's season and officially closed the book on the franchise's five-year run in Abbotsford.
The host Griffins fended off a third-period comeback by the Heat en route to a 5-3 victory on Friday at Van Andel Arena, thus sealing a 3-1 triumph in the best-of-five first-round playoff series.
Grand Rapids captain Jeff Hoggan had a huge night – the Hope native scored twice and assisted on Landon Ferraro's empty-netter which sealed the deal with 13 seconds remaining.
The Heat, meanwhile, got goals from Shane O'Brien, Kane Lafranchise and Markus Granlund, two assists from Max Reinhart, and a solid 31-save outing from goalie Joni Ortio in what turned out to be the last game in team history.
"It was kind of a unique night, in terms of the end of an era," acknowledged Troy Ward, who was a part of four of the franchise's five seasons – one as an assistant coach under Jim Playfair, and the last three as head coach. "It's something where all our players will look back and say, 'Remember when.'
"The community was a great place, and I think the players would echo that . . . We had a lot of good people who grew to be part of the Heat family."
The Heat won't be back next season, the City of Abbotsford having already shelled out $5.5 million to terminate the last five years of a 10-year supply fee agreement with the NHL parent Calgary Flames. Local taxpayers will also end up covering an estimated $7.2 million in operating deficits accrued by the American Hockey League club between 2009 and 2014.
Where they'll go next isn't finalized yet, but reports out of Glens Falls, N.Y. suggest that the Flames' prospects should start perusing the rental market in that upstate New York city.
"It's kind of crazy thinking that I'll be somewhere else next year," mused defenceman Chris Breen, who arrived in Abbotsford during the final weeks of the team's inaugural 2009-10 season and departs as the franchise's all-time games played leader.
"I've got a lot of good roots in Abbotsford . . . I've grown from a young guy into an legitimate professional hockey player. I've met some unbelievable people along the way, and I want to say thank you to the city."
On Friday, the Heat put together a solid first period, and grabbed a 1-0 lead when O'Brien's bomb from the point found its way through a crowd and past Griffins goalie Petr Mrazek at the 14:21 mark.
Grand Rapids had Abbotsford under siege in the middle frame, though, out-shooting the Heat 18-6 and putting a trio of pucks behind Ortio.
Teemu Pulkkinen drew the Griffins even when he hammered home a one-timer on the power play, and Hoggan gave them the lead just over two minutes later, taking advantage of an O'Brien turnover in the defensive zone.
Lafranchise levelled the score 2-2 with his first career AHL goal at the 13:16 mark, and it was a pretty one. From his spot at the left point, he cut to the net to accept a nifty backdoor pass from Reinhart, and finished with a lovely deke around Mrazek.
But with just 34 seconds remaining in the period, Hoggan restored the Griffins' lead, driving to the net to shovel in the rebound off Cory Emmerton's initial shot.
The Heat had rallied from a one-goal third-period deficit in Wednesday's series-extending victory, but pulling off the feat two games in a row against the defending Calder Cup champs wasn't to be.
Riley Sheahan popped in a rebound on the power play at the 4:51 mark to extend the Griffins' lead to two, but less than a minute later, Granlund picked the top corner on Mrazek during a Heat man-advantage.
Abbotsford kept pressing, and generated their best chance to equalize during another shorthanded situation. An errant Grand Rapids pass appeared to spring Reinhart on a breakaway, but Mrazek came charging out to just inside his own blue line and knocked the puck away before Reinhart could get to it. Granlund kept the puck in the offensive zone, but couldn't get a clean look at the empty net before Mrazek got back to his crease.
Ferraro ended any remaining suspense in the waning seconds, hitting the empty net off yet another terrific hustle play by Hoggan, who was rightfully named the game's first star.
"We had a good enough game, in a lot of ways, to beat them tonight," Ward said. "We just didn't cash in on our opportunities, and that was disappointing. It was just the littlest things that swung the series.
"It was a close series, closer than it looked. I liked a lot of the things we did."
There's no shame in losing to the defending champion Griffins, who got an infusion of talent last weekend after their NHL parent club, the Detroit Red Wings, were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs by the Boston Bruins.
"They have a very solid team – there's a reason they won last year," Breen said. "They play very well structurally, just like us.
"I think everybody believed we could come back and take the series (after falling behind 2-0). But when you dig yourself a hole like that, it's really tough to climb out.
"Obviously it's never easy to get beat out. And you know what, we'll obviously go through a little mourning period. But right now, it's about enjoying the last couple hours you have with the guys."