Individually and collectively, Friday’s 3-2 triumph over the Houston Aeros had to feel somewhat cathartic for the Abbotsford Heat.
Not only did the victory snap a slide that saw the Heat lose eight of their previous 10 games, but it was laden with uplifting personal milestones.
There was Henrik Karlsson, the erstwhile Calgary Flames backup goalie in town on a conditioning stint, making 23 saves to earn his first career AHL win. It marked his first victory of any description this season – he’d gone 0-4-1 with the Flames in the fall, and lost both of his prior starts with the Heat last week. In between, he’d been sidelined two months with a sprained MCL in his right knee.
Then there was Hugh Jessiman, scoring a goal in his first game with Abbotsford after signing as a free agent on Monday. Another newcomer, Adam Estoclet, picked up two assists in just his second game in Heat silks. And Greg Nemisz, a more familiar face, scored what turned out to be the game-winner in his return from a five-week injury absence.
“This was a meaningful game for us,” Heat head coach Troy Ward summarized. “To get over the hump, it seems tougher.”
With Jessiman making his debut, and Nemisz (shoulder) and captain Quintin Laing (concussion) back in the lineup, the Heat got off to a solid start, out-shooting the Aeros 11-4 in the first period. But they had nothing to show for it, as Houston keeper Matt Hackett kept them at bay.
Early in the second period, Jessiman gave his new team a boost. It wasn’t just that he scored, but also how he scored – a true goal-scorer’s goal, sniping top-corner on Hackett off a feed from Estoclet. Such clinical finish has eluded the Heat for long stretches this season.
Just past the midway point of the frame, Ben Walter tipped in Jordan Henry’s point shot, with Estoclet also picking up an assist on the play. And shortly thereafter, Nemisz made it 3-0, taking a slick backhand feed from Dustin Sylvester on the doorstep and tapping the puck past Hackett.
The Aeros got back into it thanks to a pair of goals by Jon DiSalvatore that were polar opposites in terms of aesthetic value. DiSalvatore’s first, at 15:49 of the second, was an ugly one – his centering pass deflected off Heat defenceman Joe Piskula’s skate and past a stunned Karlsson.
Just 42 seconds into the third, DiSalvatore finished off a prettier play, depositing the puck past Karlsson off a sweet pass from Chad Rau.
A tripping penalty to Nemisz gave the Aeros a golden opportunity to equalize, but Karlsson was at his best on the penalty kill. He stoned Rau on a point-blank wrist shot, and later went right-to-left to stop Kris Fredheim on a goalmouth scramble.
“I’m definitely a better goalie this year than last year, but I haven’t gotten those Ws,” Karlsson said afterward. “It’s been a little bit frustrating, but it was a really, really nice feeling to get that first one. I’m just going to build on this.”
As for Jessiman, he felt right at home with his new team.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “It sort of carried over from the last two days of practice – I thought we were focused. My first impression was that it’s a great group of guys, and I think it showed in the win tonight, the type of character I saw right from the start.”
• The Heat improved to 27-20-3-0, good for 57 points. They’re five points back of the Aeros (25-15-3-9) in the West Division standings.
• Heat forward Jon Rheault was a surprise scratch on Friday, sitting out with an undisclosed injury sustained during practice late in the week. Ward implied it wasn’t overly serious.
“I just want to be patient with him,” he said.
Defenceman Brian Connelly, who suffered a shoulder injury last Saturday against the Oklahoma City Barons, also sat out.
• The Heat and Barons renew hostilities on Saturday (7 p.m., AESC).
Heat blueliner Joe Piskula battles Joel Broda of the Houston Aeros in a first-period scrap. (John Morrow photo)