Ex-Abbotsford Heat forward Colin Stuart scored twice and Joacim Eriksson turned in an outstanding 38-save performance as the Utica Comets knocked off the Heat 3-1 on Saturday at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
The Vancouver Canucks affiliate beat the Heat for the seventh time in 10 head-to-head meetings this season, leaving the hosts to bemoan what might have been after a lacklustre start to the game.
Abbotsford had four consecutive power plays in quick succession in the first period, and failed not only to score, but to generate much in the way of good looks at the Utica goal.
That left the door open for the Comets, who salvaged a split of the two-game weekend set at the AESC. The Heat had won 3-1 on Friday.
“I was happy with maybe the 39 shots, but it’s the way we started the game,” Abby head coach Troy Ward said. “We just didn’t shoot to score a lot, and I thought our special players weren’t special early.
“My only big problem with our power play in the first period was, there was no intent to score. There was a lot of passing.
“Until we start to learn to shoot, we’re going to have our issues with winning.”
In the wake of the Heat’s toothless power-play performance in the opening frame, Utica’s Brandon DeFazio opened the scoring at 8:47 of the second on a fortuitous bounce. The rebound off Yann Sauve’s initial shot caromed to DeFazio at the far side of the cage, and he whipped a sharp-angle shot past Heat goalie Olivier Roy, who was moving left-to-right and couldn’t get across in time.
Stuart made it 2-0 at 15:25 of the middle stanza, collecting an off-the-boards bank pass from Alex Friesen on the rush and beating Roy with a five-hole wrist shot.
He notched his second of the game early in the third, firing a shot through a screen that found its way past Roy.
Eriksson, meanwhile, was bedevilling the Heat at the other end. He did his best work in the second period, when the Abbotsford line of Max Reinhart, Corey Locke and Josh Jooris put together a handful of dangerous shifts in succession.
Locke had a great look from in tight, but Eriksson kicked out the right pad to stymie him. Shortly thereafter, Reinhart found himself alone to the left of the Comets goalie courtesy a nice feed from Locke behind the net, but Eriksson made a glove save.
The Heat derailed Eriksson’s shutout bid with 7:20 to go in the third period during an extended two-man advantage, as Ben Street hammered home a one-timer off a pass from Locke.
But the Comets kept them at bay from there to get back to the .500 mark (27-27-7, 61 points). Abbotsford fell to 34-22-7 for 75 points, good for fifth in the AHL’s Western Conference.
“We didn’t score early in the game and that maybe took the momentum away,” said Heat defenceman Chad Billins. “It’s a work in progress. We’ve got some different personnel in there. We’ve got to start converting.”
Street’s third-period goal could be a silver lining for the Heat – the team’s top scorer could use the confidence boost, having registered just one goal and one assist over the previous six games to go with a minus-8 rating.
“He’s having a really tough stretch,” Ward said of Street. “He’s playing minutes beyond what he’s usually capable of playing. Does he want to play those minutes? Yes – any good player wants to play those minutes.
“It’s important that a Ben Street or a Corey Locke or a Max Reinhart, certain guys that we’re going to turn to right now, that they get their goals and their confidence stays high.”
Locke probably needs a goal even more than Street did. The veteran centre has been a productive playmaker for Abbotsford, with 14 assists in 18 games since coming over in a trade from the Chicago Wolves in late January. But he’s still looking for his first goal as a member of the Heat, and his exasperation is palpable.
“It’s frustrating,” said Locke. “I’ve been getting looks but can’t find a way to get the puck behind that goal line. It cost a goal today. I stayed out to try and score, extending a shift, and they go back and score that second goal. That’s unacceptable.”
Stuart, who suited up for the Heat during their inaugural 2009-10 season, savoured a strong showing his return to Abbotsford.
“It’s still neat coming here,” said Stuart, who serves as Comets captain. “And not just the arena, but the city itself. It’s interesting to see how things have changed around town. And obviously I was here in the inaugural season so there was a lot going on, so that makes it special too.”
Picking up first star honours was Eriksson, whose recent play garnered post-game praise from Comets coach Travis Green.
“He was good the whole game,” said Green. “I liked him last night and really liked him for the last three months. He’s been real solid for us. He had a tough start to the year but he’s starting to develop.”
• Sven Baertschi, sidelined the last four games with what Ward termed a “mid-body” injury, took warm-up on Saturday but did not play. Ward said the winger could have potentially played, but it was decided they didn’t want to rush him. Baertschi is expected back on Wednesday when the Heat open a six-game road trip against the Hamilton Bulldogs.
• Ward suggested that forward Blair Jones, who missed both weekend games with multiple unspecified injuries, may not travel with the team on the road trip.