Aeros shoot down Heat in wild West Division showdown

Thousands of youngsters at the Abbotsford Heat's inaugural school day game couldn't have asked for better entertainment value.

Heat netminder Leland Irving looks for the puck in a goalmouth scramble during the first period on Tuesday.

Heat netminder Leland Irving looks for the puck in a goalmouth scramble during the first period on Tuesday.

For the thousands of youngsters in attendance at the Abbotsford Heat’s inaugural school day game on Tuesday morning, the home team’s 7-6 shootout loss to the Houston Aeros couldn’t have been any more fun to watch.

The two teams, after all, combined to light the lamp 12 times in regulation, representing the highest-scoring game the Heat have been a part of this season.

Factor in a trio of fights, a bunch of big bodychecks and the breakaway contest at the end, and the entertainment value was off the charts. The season-high crowd of 5,802 richly appreciated all of it, oohing, aahing and clapping their ThunderStix throughout.

But for Heat bench boss Troy Ward and his Houston counterpart John Torchetti, the defence-optional contest (complete with shaky goaltending at times) was the kind of ulcer-inducing roller-coaster ride that might inspire a coach to chug a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

“If I was a fan, I’d think that was pretty good,” Ward said with a wry grin afterward. “I saw lots of goals, saw a shootout, saw some fights.

“It had its moments. There are times when you’re frustrated, and times you feel for players. But it’s back-to-back games where we’ve beat ourselves, and that’s frustrating.”

When the dust had settled, Aeros goalie Matt Keetley had carved out a nice comeback story.

The Medicine Hat native was a member of the Heat during their first two years in Abbotsford. But he hadn’t played an AHL game since March 30, 2011, and hadn’t won in the AHL in over two years, dating back to Feb. 20, 2010, when he made 23 saves to backstop Abbotsford to a 1-0 win over the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

Keetley had spent the bulk of this season with the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors, but Houston obtained him on loan on Monday. (Matt Hackett, the Aeros’ usual starter, is up with the NHL parent Minnesota Wild, while backup Darcy Kuemper is out with an upper-body injury).

Keetley entered the game at 14:28 of the first period, after Houston starter Joe Fallon surrendered three goals on the Heat’s first four shots. He allowed three goals on 16 shots, but was solid in the shootout, turning aside three of four Abbotsford attempts.

Keetley didn’t hide his elation after stopping Heat forward Adam Estoclet to seal the win, cutting loose with a couple fist pumps.

“I didn’t win at all last year, so it was one of those things where I really wanted to come in and get the W,” said Keetley, who battled through injuries en route to an 0-7-1 record with the Heat last season.

“I had some jitters, and I need to keep working hard in practice to eliminate any bad goals. The guys here worked so hard the whole game. They really battled for me.”

In the first period, the goalies might have gotten sunburned from the red light going off behind them, as the two teams exchanged six goals. James Martin, Clay Wilson and Hugh Jessiman scored to give Abbotsford the lead on three occasions, but Chris Clackson, Chad Rau and Jon DiSalvatore equalized each time for Houston.

The Aeros built a 5-3 lead on second-period goals by Kris Foucault and Chay Genoway. Genoway’s marker chased Heat starter Leland Irving, who allowed five goals on 20 shots.

But the Heat staged a three-goal rally, with Ryan Howse scoring on a power play midway through the second, and Jessimen and Ben Walter bulging the twine 1:30 apart in the third.

With the clock ticking down and Keetley on the bench, Rau got his second of the game with 23.7 seconds left to force OT, taking a feed from David McIntyre and roofing a shot on Danny Taylor, Irving’s replacement.

In the shootout, three of four Aeros shooters – C.J. Stretch, Foucault and Jeff Taffe – scored on Taylor.

Jessiman, Wilson and Walter each had three-point nights for the Heat, but the home team simply made too many errors.

Ward was particularly peeved with veteran blueliner Joe Piskula. With 2:07 left in the game, Abbotsford was headed for a power play thanks to a Carson McMillan boarding penalty. But Piskula stepped in to scrap the Houston forward, and picked up an extra two minutes for roughing to nullify the man advantage. It was an “awful penalty,” in Ward’s estimation.

“I thought the end was very fitting,” the Heat bench boss said. “The way we managed the game, I didn’t think we deserved even a point.”

The Heat’s roster turnover in the last few days surely contributed to the sloppy effort. A trio of Abbotsford forwards – Krys Kolanos, Greg Nemisz and Guillaume Desbiens – were recalled on Monday by the injury-riddled Calgary Flames. The team also swapped defencemen with the Chicago Wolves, giving up Jordan Henry for J.P. Testwuide, and called up blueliner Nick Tuzzolino from the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies.

But Ward refused to use that as an excuse, referring to the AHL – as he often does – as the land of opportunity.

“We have some guys that are trying to take it, and we have some guys who are basically missing the boat,” he said. “But that’s life.”

ICE CHIPS:

• The Aeros (27-18-3-9, 66 points) closed to within two points of the Heat (31-22-3-3, 68 points) for fourth in the Western Conference. The two teams renew hostilities on Wednesday (7 p.m., AESC).

• Ward was complimentary of Testwuide and Tuzzolino on the occasion of their Heat debuts. Testwuide, in fact, arrived at the rink less than two hours before the game, and turned in a gritty performance switching between forward and defence.

“The guy slept on the floor in the airport in Vancouver,” Ward said. “He got hung up in immigration . . . so he slept at the door. He said, ‘I’ll be the first one in here so I can get my immigration done, I’m playing tomorrow.’

“What more could you ask out of him? He’s just nails, that guy.”

The Heat’s first annual school day game drew well despite the teachers’ strike. A season-high crowd of 5,802 watched the home team fall 7-6 in a shootout to the Houston Aeros. (John Morrow photo)