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Heat goalie Danny Taylor plays the puck in the corner as defenceman Joe Piskula battles a Hamilton Bulldogs forechecker.
Clint Trahan / Abbotsford Heat

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Matczak's magic lifts Heat to victory over Bulldogs

Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward is fond of referring to the AHL as "a land of opportunity," and that sentiment rings truer than ever these days.

With the NHL's post-lockout training camps causing players to evaporate off AHL rosters at midseason like it's the rapture, there are suddenly opportunities galore for others to step up and shine.

Tuesday's tilt at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre saw Mike Matczak step into the limelight.

Matczak, an offensive-minded blueliner who was plucked from the roster of the ECHL's Kalamazoo Wings last Friday, notched his first career AHL goal and added an assist as the Heat beat the Hamilton Bulldogs 3-1.

“Mike, probably a week ago, didn’t plan on being here,” Ward noted with a grin afterward. “Life changes really quick at this level for guys.

"I was happy he had a good night.”

The offensive injection from Matczak was a welcome change of pace for the Heat, who have struggled mightily to score goals over the past month and a half en route to winning just four of their previous 17 games.

Abbotsford and Hamilton, in fact, came into Tuesday's action as the AHL's two lowest-scoring teams – the Heat were averaging just 2.31 goals per game, and only the Bulldogs, at 2.23, were worse.

The hosts controlled the play decisively in the opening frame, but it took them until the final minute to open the scoring, and Ben Walter did the honours on the power play. Matczak started the play, sending the puck off the end boards where Krys Kolanos corralled it. He came swooping around the net and fed Walter at the top of the crease for an easy chip-in.

Walter's marker snapped a Heat goalless drought of 135 minutes, 21 seconds which dated back to last Friday's 3-1 loss to the Chicago Wolves and continued through Saturday's 1-0 loss to the same team.

The Bulldogs struck back on a power play of their own midway through the second. Tyler Murovich, a recent member of the ECHL's Gwinnett Gladiators who signed a professional tryout (PTO) contract with Hamilton on Sunday, rewarded his new team with a pretty goal. Snaring the puck out of a maze of legs in the corner, he skated to the net and beat Heat goalie Danny Taylor with a top-shelf backhander.

But the Heat turned the momentum back their way in a hurry. Off the ensuing faceoff, defenceman Zach McKelvie dropped the gloves with Hamilton forward Kyle Hagel.

After the two combatants had been ushered to the sin bin, Tyler Ruegsegger came through with a goal which epitomized his "Rudy" nickname. Carter Bancks jarred the puck loose in the corner of the Hamilton zone with a big hit, and it came to Bulldogs blueliner Antoine Corbin in front of the net. Before he could move the puck, Ruegsegger had hustled up behind him, lifted his stick, and muscled a wrist shot top-corner on stunned Hamilton goalie Cedrick Desjardins.

"It's no secret that we've struggled to score goals as of late," observed Ruegsegger, whose tally came just 12 seconds after Murovich's.

"We're getting our shots, and I was fortunate to put one in tonight and help the team. I think we've all been working on it in practice – working on trying to bear down that little extra bit to put it in the net. It paid off tonight."

Matczak, playing his second game with the Heat, supplied some insurance at 5:54 of the third, wiring a wrist shot from the side boards that found the top corner behind a screened Desjardins. It was his first career AHL goal.

"Obviously it's exciting to get on the scoresheet," said Matczak, 24, who played four years at Yale University. "I didn't really do nothing too special out there. My goal, Nemo (Greg Nemisz) was putting a good screen out front, and I just had to put it on net there. But it's obviously good to get the win.

"I'm trying to just make the most of my opportunity here, doing the best I can to help the team while I'm here for however long I last, and go from there."

Taylor picked up a relatively easy victory, thanks to his team's 36-15 dominance in the shots-on-goal department. But Ward felt the goalie deserved extra kudos in light of the fact he and wife Danielle have been adjusting to parenthood. Their first child, son Hudson, was born on New Year's Day.

“It's hard – a week ago Danny wasn’t sleeping a lot," Ward said. "You look at what he’s done in a short amount of time. He’s got tremendous focus right now and I think it shows.”

ISHERWOOD MAKES DEBUT AT HOME

As with Matczak, the end of the NHL lockout has also been a boon to Mark Isherwood's career. The 23-year-old Abbotsford native couldn't have scripted his AHL debut any better, suiting up for the Bulldogs in front of loved ones at the AESC.

"I had 15 tickets for my family and close friends, and there were a few other people there, I'm sure," he said with a smile.

"It was pretty fun – I was a little nervous and excited at the same time. To get a chance to come home and play in Abbotsford and make my AHL debut was pretty exciting. It was too bad we couldn't get the two points, obviously, but we'll go back out there again tomorrow and work."

Isherwood, a puck-moving defenceman, was a member of the ECHL's all-rookie team and won the Kelly Cup in 2010-11 with the Alaska Aces, and he played in Italy with Cortina SG last season.

He was in training camp with the Heat last fall and was assigned to their ECHL affiliate, the Utah Grizzlies, but when the lockout ended, it was the Bulldogs who came calling. That in itself was pretty special – Isherwood's father Mike is a huge Montreal Canadiens fan, and Hamilton is the Canadiens' affiliate.

"He kind of got to see me in some Montreal (gear)," Isherwood noted with a chuckle.

ICE CHIPS:

• The Heat (18-12-7) and Bulldogs (13-20-4) clash again on Wednesday (7 p.m., AESC).

• The Bulldogs are currently missing a huge chunk of their offence – players accounting for 50 of their 78 goals coming into Tuesday's game are in Canadiens training camp right now.

Mike Matczak found himself at the centre of "the Wesbo," the Heat's post-victory salute to the home fans, after notching a goal and an assist in Tuesday's 3-1 win over Hamilton. (Clint Trahan photo / Abbotsford Heat)

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