ABBOTSFORD, B.C. – Nearing the midway mark of their inaugural AHL season in Abbotsford, the Heat (18-16-2-3) are hovering the .500 mark and tied for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Defence remains an issue. Going into play Thursday, only four clubs in the 29-team league have given up more goals than the 111 the Heat have leaked.
The Calgary Flames affiliate chose to go young in goal and on the blue-line, a decision which left them with more growing pains than just the off-season relocation from the Quad Cities.
“We knew all season long they were going to be an area of development for us,” head coach Jim Playfair said of his youngsters. “I think the last couple games they’ve started to play a little bit better for, us a little more solid, both areas are going to be a working process.”
The Heat have relied, predominantly, on the goalie tandem of Matt Keetley and Leland Irving.
Irving, a 21-year-old who shouldered the bulk of the load through the first half, has been shaky at times posting a 10-12-2 record in 26 games.
Keetley (6-4-1) was rocky at the start of the season and missed nearly a month with a knee injury. But since his return, the 23-year-old has been in good form, posting a 4-2-0 record in December with a 1.83 GAA and .941 save percentage.
“I think we’re right where I thought we would be in terms of where our goaltenders are at,” said Playfair. “I think our goalies are at a point now where they’re going to battle it out for the No. 1 position on the team.”
Rookie defencemen Keith Seabrook, John Negrin, Josh Meyers and Keith Aulie are all growing on the job, according to Playfair.
Up front, Jason Jaffray, Jamie Lundmark and Colin Stuart have led the team offensively. Jaffray and Lundmark have each spent some time with the big club.
Jaffray, one of the last cuts by the Flames in the fall, has had the biggest impact offensively, leading the team with 13 goals and 30 points.
The Heat are the most penalized team in the league with 1,024 penalty minutes.
One of the team’s struggles this season has been inconsistency on home ice. The Heat are 7-6-2-1 at home and left-winger David Van Der Gulik, an Abbotsford native, says the schedule is partly to blame.
Because of Abbotsford’s location, every visitor plays back-to-back games against the Heat.
“It’s something different when you play a team and win the game – the next night they’re obviously going to come out harder and it’s going to be a tougher game,” said Van Der Gulik. “It’s tough to win two games in a row and it’s even tougher to beat the same team twice.”
The team has averaged about 3,600 fans a night at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
Abbotsford entertains the Manitoba Moose – the Vancouver Canucks affiliate – next week as part of its eight-game January home stand.
It’s a crucial home stand in terms of making the playoffs.
“Every game from here on in gets harder and harder to get points,” said Lundmark, who picked up three points in six games with the Flames earlier this season.
“Any points we can get at home are going to be big for us in the long run. Every point counts from here on in to making the playoffs and getting home ice in the playoffs.”