AHL Weekly: Heat showing no signs of cooling

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. … The Abbotsford Heat spent much of their inaugural season hovering around the .500 mark and on the postseason bubble in the North Division. After an impressive road trip, though, the Heat are racing up the standings with their sights firmly set on a spot in the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Guided by former Calder Cup-winning head coach Jim Playfair, Abbotsford finished 8-1-0-0 on a season-high nine-game journey, punctuated by a five-game winning streak and back-to-back victories over Worcester last weekend. The Heat departed on their trip in fourth place and eight points back of second-place Rochester, but they return to Abbotsford at 31-24-4-4 overall, good for 70 points and a share of second with the Americans. A well-balanced offense and improved defensive play have sparked the Heat’s resurgence.

Abbotsford features 11 different players who have accumulated 20-plus points on the season, and the Heat’s defense, which ranked 22nd in the AHL a month ago, is now up to 14th in the league (2.89 goals allowed per game). In his first season with Abbotsford, two-time AHL All-Star Jason Jaffray has already clinched his fourth consecutive 20-goal campaign and leads the Heat with 21 goals, 47 points and a plus-21 rating in 62 games. Reigning Reebok/AHL Player of the Week Mikael Backlund, a first-round draft pick (27th overall) by the Calgary Flames in 2007, shows 6-8-14 in his last 10 games and ranks second on the club in both goals (15) and points (32) for the season.

Former Calder Cup champion Colin Stuart has recorded 28 points (12-16-28) in 53 outings on the season, while fourth-year pro Cam Cunning already boasts a career-high 13 goals and 27 points in 52 games, and Radek Smolenak (7-17-24) has posted three assists in nine games since joining Abbotsford from the Norfolk Admirals. Abbotsford native David Van der Gulik began the season on a five-game scoring streak and has totaled nine goals and 17 assists to go along with a plus-8 rating. Garth Murray has matched a career high with 24 points (7-17-24) while playing all 63 games; 22-year-old Brett Sutter shows 21 points (8-13-21) in 58 contests; and Riley Armstrong has contributed 11 goals and eight assists in 37 games.

Third-year pro Gord Baldwin, who entered this season having totaled two goals and nine assists in 92 career AHL games, is pacing all Heat defensemen with 22 points (3-19-22) and a plus-8 rating in 50 outings. Staffan Kronwall, a 2009 Calder Cup champion with Hershey, has found the scoresheet in nine of his last 10 games (0-12-12) and shows three goals and 16 assists in just 28 AHL contests on the season. Rookies John Negrin (5-10-15) and Josh Meyers (3-7-10, plus-7) have also made contributions on the Abbotsford blue line.

One of two teams this season to have three goaltenders with at least 10 wins each (Hershey is the other), Abbotsford has gotten a boost from former second-round draft pick David Shantz, who is 8-1-1 (2.35, .924) in his last 11 appearances. Matt Keetley has a 10-7-1 mark (2.59, .912) with two shutouts on the season.

The Heat have a favorable schedule down the stretch, in that they will play 12 of their final 17 games at home. They open a six-game homestand this week when Eastern Conference foes Providence and Worcester visit the Entertainment & Sports Centre for two-game sets.

AHL standings
Scores and schedules
League leaders

CLEAR DAY PERIOD SET … The AHL’s Clear Day deadline, when all 29 teams must submit their 22-man Clear Day lists, is set for Wednesday, Mar. 10, at 3:00 p.m. ET. Only those players listed on a team’s Clear Day roster are eligible to compete in the remainder of the AHL regular season and in the 2010 Calder Cup Playoffs, unless emergency conditions arise as a result of recall, injury or suspension.

The National Hockey League’s trade deadline is this Wednesday, Mar. 3, at 3:00 p.m. ET.

ON THE AIR … Several AHL games will get the TV treatment this week, including two more installments of the State Farm Lone Star Faceoff on Fox Sports Houston and Fox Sports Southwest, with San Antonio visiting Texas on Wednesday night before heading to Houston on Friday. Fans outside the FS Houston and Southwest viewing areas can find the games on DirecTV or Dish Network; check local listings for details.

NHL Network’s AHL Game of the Week will air live on Sunday afternoon, when the Chicago Wolves host the Lake Erie Monsters. Chicago remains the only AHL team to televise all 80 of its regular-season games.

The Toronto Marlies will have their games on Saturday and Sunday televised locally by Rogers TV, as Rochester and Hartford visit Ricoh Coliseum. Hamilton’s game against Chicago on Friday night can be seen in the Hamilton area on Cable 14.

RECORD FEBRUARY FOR NORFOLK … The Norfolk Admirals recently completed their most successful month of February in 10 seasons as a member of the AHL, posting a 10-3-0-1 mark to earn 21 of a possible 28 points last month. The 10 victories tied for their most in any calendar month (March 2002, January 2007), while the 21 points ranked second (22 points, March 2002).

Paul Szczechura paced the Admirals with 12 points (1-11-12) in February, and rookie Dana Tyrell had a plus-9 rating to go along with three goals and eight assists. Forwards Mark Parrish (3-8-11) and Juraj Simek (6-4-10) also put up double-digit point totals in the month, while two-time AHL All-Star defenseman Matt Lashoff chipped in two goals and seven helpers.

Norfolk, which was 17-23-2-0 and in last place in the East Division at the All-Star break, has rattled off a 16-3-1-1 record in 21 games since to move into a second-place tie with Albany at 70 points apiece. The Admirals are looking to return to the Calder Cup Playoffs following a two-year absence.

ETC. … Forty-two AHL alumni earned medals at the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament in Vancouver, including 12 golds for Canada and 16 silvers from Team USA; Ryan Miller of the United States, a former AHL goaltender of the year and two-time AHL All-Star, was named tournament MVP… Hershey extended its league-record home winning streak to 21 games with a 9-2 triumph over Bridgeport on Saturday; the Bears’ magic number to clinch a playoff spot is down to eight… Hamilton has killed off 28 consecutive opponent power plays and scored three shorthanded goals in that span… Adirondack forward Jason Ward played his 700th career pro game on Wednesday vs. Syracuse; the 2003 AHL MVP has now appeared in 368 AHL contests to go along with 336 matches in the National Hockey League… Chicago defenseman Paul Postma shows 10 points (5-5-10) in his last five games after totaling 5-6-11 in his first 39 contests this season… Peoria turned a 2-1 second-intermission deficit into a 3-2 win on Friday at Chicago; prior to that, the Rivermen had been 0-17-0-2 when trailing after two periods while Chicago was 23-0-0-0 when leading after 40 minutes… Hartford’s 2-1 overtime losses to Springfield on Friday and Portland on Saturday marked the first back-to-back overtime defeats in the Wolf Pack’s 13-year history… Syracuse’s line of Derek MacKenzie, Tomas Kana, and Alexandre Picard has combined for 18 points (6-12-18) in the Crunch’s last four games, with each player registering two goals and four assists.