April 25 2014 08:30AM
The playoffs begin tonight for a few Flames players, as the AHL's Abbotsford Heat - Calgary's top farm team - faces the Grand Rapids Griffins in round one of the Calder Cup playoffs! Game one goes at 8pm MT on TeamRadio.ca (radio) and AHL Live (paid webcast).
A dozen Heat players are beginning the post-season after spending some time with Calgary. (For the curious: Joni Ortio, Shane O'Brien, Derek Smith, Chris Breen, Chad Billins, Ben Street, Corban Knight, Max Reinhart, Blair Jones, Markus Granlund, Sven Baertschi and Ben Hanowski.) That could have an impact on the team's confidence level going into the playoffs, as the Heat finally got healthy and got their groove back, winning three games in three nights on the road in Texas to cement their playoff seeding.
But can a team that's now chock-full of Flames draft picks from 2010, 2011, 2012 and (now) 2013 turn talent into chemistry and chemistry into a few playoff wins?
The Baby Flames closed out the year winning 8 of their final 10, a product of (finally) getting some bodies back from Calgary. They were 43-25-5-3, getting off to a white-hot start and then slumping a bit in the dog days of the season when injuries and recalls made them the Abbotsford Aces for a few weeks.
Probable lines based on scuttlebutt and hearsay, mostly:
Poirier - Granlund - Reinhart
Jones - Street - Locke
Baertschi - Knight - Olson
Hanowski - Jooris - Bancks
O'Brien - Smith
Billins - Breen
LaFranchise - Kulak/Arsene
Their starting goalie is Joni Ortio. He's been excellent in basically his first North American pro season, even supplanting Reto Berra as the #2 guy in Calgary for a bit. He's backed up by U-Mass Lowell graduate Doug Carr, who's in on a try-out deal. (Joey MacDonald isn't eligible to play in the post-season, while Olivier Roy is in Alaska.)
On the blueline, the Heat have a decent mix of veterans and youngsters. Shane O'Brien and Derek Smith were demoted from the Flames to make room for other bodies, but have been key guys for the Heat - anchoring the top pairing and mentoring young blueliners. Expect to see Chris Breen, Chad Billins, and some combination of Brett Kulak, (the awesomely-named) Kane LaFranchise and captain Dean Arsene filling out the other pairings.
Up-front, the Heat got a nice injection of depth and talent with Emile Poirier's re-assignment from Gatineau after the QMJHL playoffs, as well as Markus Granlund's return from an upper-body injury in Calgary. They've been very good, earning Poirier some playoff time.
Beyond the top line, the Heat have some depth. Ben Street and Blair Jones both had NHL stints (and have been superb AHLers). Ben Hanowski, Josh Jooris and Carter Bancks are a good checking group. Corban Knight, Sven Baertschi and Brett Olson are contributing, too. There's a decent chance you'll see Morgan Klimchuk play, as well, but perhaps not to start.
The Grand Rapids Griffins are Detroit's farm team. They are a gosh-darn hockey factory. They keep taking in raw players and churning out NHL talent. This is what the Abbotsford Heat want to become. The Griffins won the Calder Cup last year as a bit of an underdog (they were the third seed in the West and rode some hot goaltending, some impressive team play and some upsets of other top clubs to a Calder Cup. This year? They led their division all year...until they fell out of the spot on the last day of the season and ended up facing the Heat in the first round.
All-in-all, roughly a dozen Calder Cup winners from last year's team are still with the Griffins.
Probable lines (guesswork based on combo from Griffins Central)
Pulkkinen - Emmerton - Frk
Hoggan - McIntyre - Tootoo
Ferraro - Nestrasil - Campbell
Grant - Aubry - Parkes
Almquist - Sproul
Evans - Fournier
Jensen - Paetsch
The Griffins have an able one-two goaltending duo of the excellent Petr Mrazek and the perfectly acceptable Tom McCollum. No slight against McCollum, but Mrazek's just really good. Apparently Jimmy Howard has the flu, so there's a chance Mrazek gets summoned to Detroit and McCollum starts.
On the back-end, the Griffins have 2004 Flames emergency recall blueliner Brennan Evans! Adam Almquist and Ryan Sproul anchor the blueline, which doesn't really have as many veterans as the Heat's, but arguably has an edge in talent. A lot of Grand Rapids' success five-on-five has been a result of strong play from their regular blueline group. They should get Xavier Ouellet back from Detroit soon.
Babcock said he's going with the same six defensemen. Ouellet was here just in case Kronwall couldn't go due to wife being in labor.— Ansar Khan (@AnsarKhanMLive) April 24, 2014
Up-front, not a lot of "big names," but a lot of well-rounded players. Teemu Pulkkinen is the team's offensive leader, and Landon Ferraro and Cory Emmerton are arguably the biggest "names" around for a bit. But the Griffins may get reinforcements; Mitch Callahan is due back from an injury by about Game 3, while Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan are due back in the event the Red Wings get eliminated. If they don't, then the Heat get to face a team slightly depleted on their top lines, but one that's well-coached and tough to beat five-on-five.
We know what kind of team that Grand Rapids is. We've been watching film on them, we've played them a few times, so we know what to expect. Really, in the playoffs, anything can happen, it's like a new whole season. Just looking to worry about ourselves and make sure that we're playing our best hockey and we get off to a good start. -Abbotsford Heat forward Brett Olson, on how the team is approaching their first-round match-up with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
SUM IT UP
The Heat have been red-hot. The Griffins are last year's defending champions, but haven't been playing their best and are missing several key bodies (due to injury and Detroit's playoff run).
If you're gonna slay last season's Calder Cup champions, this may be the best time to do it.