They'll need every advantage against the defending Calder Cup champions.
The Heat will face the Grand Rapids Griffins in their best-of-five first-round series, which begins Friday in Abbotsford.
"They're the defending champs and I think that’s good," said Heat head coach Troy Ward. "It doesn't matter if you play the best first or last, every series is going to be hard. I like that we're playing against a team that understands how to win. It will be good for us."
It will be the Heat's final playoff run in the Fraser Valley. The City of Abbotsford terminated its agreement with the franchise earlier this month after five money-losing seasons.
The Heat finished fifth in the Western Conference, one spot behind the Griffins, who fell from second to fourth on the final day of the regular season. While the Griffins lost three of their last four heading into the post-season, the Heat closed-out the campaign with a 6-0-1 streak.
"Momentum's big in the playoffs," said Abbotsford's leading scorer Max Reinhart. "We're going up against a pretty good team but we've had a good season series against them. It was important to get a couple wins and get going in the right direction to end the season."
The Griffins won three of the four meetings this season versus the Heat, but some key players are now up with their NHL affiliate in Detroit, while the Heat's parent club Calgary missed the playoffs, allowing a handful of players rejoin the AHL squad.
"The last couple months it was unfortunate that we had bodies coming in and out," said Reinhart. "We didn't really have a set lineup. The last two or three weeks, with Calgary losing out now, getting some guys back, our lineup is a little more solid now. We got some time to get some practices and chemistry in."
The Heat were in first place back in January, but call ups and injuries produced a skeletal lineup, including one night when Ward was forced to dress nine defencemen, with three playing at forward.
"We wanted to get healthy at the right time," said Ward. "If you remember back in February and early March there wasn't a lot of smooth sailing at that time. But you understand you want to peak at the right time and in the month of April we’ve been healthy and got some bodies back and regain the form that we had early in the year."
Reinhart, who set a new Abbotsford record for points in a season, also led the season series with seven points in the four games. However it will be the experience of a few former Calder Cup champions that may make the difference in the series.
Chad Billins won the AHL championship with the Griffins last year, while Derek Smith and Corey Locke won with Binghamton in 2011.
"It's playoff hockey," said Billins. "Any team can win at any given point. You've just got to stay even-keeled throughout the series and try to chip away one game at a time."
Combined with near point-a-game veterans like Blair Jones and Ben Street, the leadership on the team will be vital.
“Their experience will help us once the series actually starts,” said Ward. “In a playoff series, teams basically (can do three things): have doubt, they panic, and they implode. When those things happen you're in trouble. So we need to have a safeguard versus adversity, so the more experience you have in the room, that’s the best thing you can have, guys who’ve been through the war zone, ‘hey this is no problem.’ There will be two or three times in the series we might feel it’s over and we need to just stay with it.”
Joni Ortio will be between the pipes, getting his momentum back after a stint with Calgary.
"He's gotten a rhythm back," said Ward of Ortio. "It's a different game in the NHL and it took a while to get his rhythm and 'AHL' condition, shots are from bad angles, not calculated up top."
This season the All-Rookie team goaltender recorded a 2.33 goals=against average and .926 save percentage, while adding a 2.51 average in nine games with Calgary.
He is going up against Grand Rapids' Petr Mrazek. who has a slightly better 2.10 GAA and added a 1.74 average in nine games with the Red Wings this year.
With the U.S. college season coming to an end and some major junior teams eliminated from their playoffs, both teams will see an influx of "black aces," but three are already making a difference for Abbotsford. Emile Poirier scored four points in his first two games with the Heat, while Brett Kulak and Morgan Klimchuk also have played solidly for Abbotsford in April.
"If we go long and deep into this thing, we're eventually going to have to use more players," said Ward. "We're getting them up to speed on how we play and systems and condition. But short term the three that would get in based on their play would be Klimchuk, Poirier and Kulak."
The series opens with two games at the Abbotsford Centre, then will shift to Michigan for Game 3, as well as 4 and 5 if necessary.
"They're going to play fast and we can skate," said Reinhart. "We respect their skill and it's going to be a good chance for our group. There are a few big guys on their back end who can lay some punishment. There are two dangerous teams out there in this series."