HAMILTON – The Abbotsford Heat’s punishing style of play could give them the edge against the Hamilton Bulldogs in their second-round American Hockey League playoff series. Or, it could be their downfall.
The Heat, who visit the Bulldogs in Game 1 of the best-of-seven North Division final Thursday night, are notorious for their physical style. While that tough play can knock opponents off their game, it also meant that Abbotsford spent more time killing penalties during the regular season than any other team in the league. The Heat spent 1,796 minutes in the penalty box, an average of 22 minutes per game.
“We are a tough team and we like to play the body, and that obviously wears the other team down over the series,” said Jon Rheault, who leads the Heat with five playoff goals. “We just have to make sure that we keep it between the whistles and within the guidelines of the rules.”
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, will focus on staying disciplined while trying not to get pushed around too much.
“In the playoffs, physical play comes more into the equation,” said captain Alex Henry, who was second on the Bulldogs with 154 regular-season penalty minutes. “We just have to match that. Some of the bigger guys have to fill in that part of the game, and our finesse guys just have to play through it.”
Each Abbotsford penalty will put them up against the Bulldogs’ power play, which had a 24 per cent success rate against Manitoba. The Heat’s penalty killers killed off just 69 per cent of Rochester’s power plays last round, the worst record in the playoffs.
“We won our last game with our power play,” said Hamilton coach Guy Boucher. “We want to make sure it stays on. I think success will come based on how we adjust to (Abbotsford).”
But Heat coach Jim Playfair thinks his team has found the ideal balance between physical play and not taking too many penalties.
“I think the most important game as a franchise was the one we played (Tuesday) night in Rochester, and I don’t think we killed off that many penalties,” he said. “It was a situation where you want your team to play on the edge, you want your team to play with emotion and energy, and sometimes you can cross that line. Overall, our team has really improved in that area.”
Hamilton, which finished first in the Western Conference, defeated the Manitoba Moose 4-2 in the first round. The Heat, which finished third in the North Division, won three straight games against the Rochester Americans to erase a 3-1 deficit in games and win that series. Hamilton won five of their eight games against Abbotsford during the regular season.
The last time the teams met, a 4-0 Hamilton win March 27 in Abbotsford, Heat winger J.D. Watt ran over Bulldogs goalie Cedrick Desjardins. Watt received a five-minute major and an ejection. Desjardins expects more of the same from Abbotsford.
“That’s the type of hockey they want to play,” said Desjardins. “The penalties will be called when it’s too much. It just keeps me in the game. I’m a competitor and I’m going to fight through the traffic?I’m used to it.”
Watt’s ejection prompted a violent, behind-the-bench outburst from Playfair, which became a YouTube sensation with more than 1.5 million hits.
Can fans expect more off-ice theatrics against the Bulldogs?
“I don’t know,” said Playfair. “It’s about the game on the ice. It’s got nothing to do with me or my past?it’s about the players playing the game on the ice, and that’s what (outbursts) are based on.”
Goaltending may be an issue for both teams. Heat goalie David Shantz earned all of Abbotsford’s four wins in the first round despite an .884 save percentage. Leland Irving, who played the most games for the Heat during the regular season, allowed three goals on just seven shots in relief of Shantz in the first round.
But Playfair said he’s been satisfied with the performance of his goaltenders.
“I think too much is made of the fact you change your goaltenders,” he said. “You pull forwards and defencemen out of your lineup, and goalies are no different.”
Shantz, who is from Hamilton, will start for Abbotsford in Game 1.
“It’s pretty exciting,” he said. “It’s always nice to have family and friends in town to support you.”
Hamilton has leaned on Desjardins while veteran netminder Curtis Sanford sat out with an injury suffered in late March. But Sanford is back practising with the team and is ready to play if Desjardins, who has an .893 save percentage in playoffs, slips up.
“I’m feeling really good,” said Sanford. “If I get the chance to play, I’m ready to go. But that’s up to the coach.”
Both teams are missing top players to injuries and call-ups. Hamilton could get P.K. Subban, Tom Pyatt and Ben Maxwell back from the Montreal Canadiens, while Mathieu Carle and Max Pacioretty are out for the series with injuries. Eric Neilson and Yannick Weber are currently injured, but Boucher said they may see action this series.
Abbotsford has lost more than 400 man-games this year to injuries. Shawn Weller, Colin Stuart, Kris Chucko, Carsen Germyn, John Armstrong, John Negrin, Andy Delmore and Brett Palin are all out with injuries. Their coach wouldn’t say whether any of them will return to action this series.
“It’s playoffs,” said Playfair. “I’ll tell you when they come back.”