In the Abbotsford Heat‘s most dramatic home game of the campaign, Sven Baertschi seized a leading role.
And that’s a great sign for the Heat, the NHL parent Calgary Flames and for Baertschi himself.
The 21-year-old left winger from Switzerland, the Flames’ first round draft choice in 2011, had been demoted to Abbotsford in mid-December with the directive to improve his all-around game.
It was a stinging rebuke for the highly touted youngster, and he struggled initially with the Heat, mustering just four points in his first 15 games and looking like a shadow of the electric talent who posted 26 points in 32 games in Abby during the 2012-13 NHL lockout.
But he’s been slowly turning things around of late, and he authored his best outing yet on Saturday in a highly entertaining clash between the Heat and the Texas Stars, two of the AHL’s high-octane offences.
Baertschi set up Josh Jooris’s goal with a neutral-zone steal – running his personal points streak to five games with the assist – and notched the game-winner in the seventh round of the shootout as the Heat edged the Stars 3-2 at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
“It’s nice to have points and everything but in the end you just want to play well,” Baertschi reasoned afterward. “There were nights before where I felt I was playing really, really well but the points weren’t there.
“In the end, if you get in that groove, you feel well and your game is going, then the points come automatic.”
Baertschi’s performance was one of the keys for the Heat in a crucial battle with a fierce West Division rival.
Abbotsford (31-14-4) came in three points ahead of Texas (28-15-6) for first in the division, and managed to grind out the extra point and extend their win streak to five games despite being outshot 36-28.
The two teams renew hostilities on Sunday (4 p.m. start, AESC).
The Stars boast the second-best offence in the AHL, scoring 3.65 goals per game prior to Saturday, and they dominated in the early going.
The Heat remained unscathed until the 10:22 mark of the first period, when Brett Ritchie got behind Chad Billins and blew a blocker-side wrist shot past Abby goalie Olivier Roy.
The Heat found more traction in the middle frame, and scored twice in 57 seconds to grab the lead.
After Texas was whistled for too many men on the ice, the Heat took just three seconds to cash in – Ben Street won the faceoff back to Derek Smith, and he hammered a top-corner slap shot past Stars keeper Cristopher Nilstorp.
Shortly thereafter, Jooris finished off a pretty three-way passing play with linemates Corey Locke and Baertschi, dropping to one knee for a one-timed slapper.
But less than three minutes later, the Stars drew even as Hubert Labrie tipped in Maxime Fortunus’s point shot.
The third period was scoreless, though not for lack of scoring chances for both teams, and Roy did his best work in OT.
Heat centre Corban Knight had been assessed a minor penalty for a faceoff violation – contacting the puck with his hand to win the draw – with 2.3 seconds left in regulation, giving Texas a four-on-three man advantage to begin the extra session.
The Heat managed to keep the puck out thanks to a series of heroic shot-blocks – including a kamikaze effort by Tyler Wotherspoon – and several tremendous stops from Roy. Among the highlights were a quick left-to-right move to stone Chris Mueller on a one-timer, and a massive pad save on Derek Meech’s point-blank slapper from the hashmarks.
“He’s not a prototypical pro goalie . . . he’s small,” Heat head coach Troy Ward said of the 6’0″ Roy, who has won all three of his starts since being recalled from the ECHL two weeks ago. “You can see the other guy in the other end (6’3” Nilstorp), he stood a couple crossbars above (Roy).
“But he battles, he’s quick, and I think he makes really good reads. . . . I think the guys are playing hard for him and they’re excited for him.”
In the shootout, the Stars’ first two attempts – by Dustin Jeffrey and Mueller – eluded Roy, but he denied the next five.
The Heat, meanwhile, got a goal from leadoff man Knight, then needed their fifth shooter Blair Jones to convert to extend the affair, which he did.
That set the stage for Baertschi, and he aimed a shot at Nilstorp’s five-hole that caught a piece of the keeper’s stick and trickled in.
“When I looked at the goalie, he has really long legs,” Baertschi said, breaking down his shootout strategy. “The move I try most of the time is to go between the legs and it worked out perfect.”
Baertschi’s recent surge, Ward said, is partially due playing alongside a veteran playmaker in Locke.
But the Heat bench boss also believes that in terms of mindset, Baertschi is taking a greater level of personal responsibility for his career.
“I think he’s getting to that point in life . . . where it’s time to make hay,” Ward said.
“When your opportunity’s there, you’ve got to capitalize and go for it. Today’s kids, the new millenniums, they like to be patient (and) say there’s another tomorrow. That’s not the way this business works.
“There’s some resiliency in his game, there’s a little bit of swagger in his step, and there’s a little bit of confidence. But I also think it comes to a point where every player down here in the American league has to have the ability to say, ‘That’s enough. It’s time for me to step forward. This is my time.’ And I think that’s kind of happening to Sven.”
The Stars came in with the AHL’s top power play by a wide margin – their 27.6 per cent efficiency easily outpaced the second-place Heat (23.2 per cent). But Abby managed to win the special-teams battle, going 1-for-6 with the man advantage compared to 0-for-5 for the Stars.
“It all starts with sacrifice (on the penalty kill),” analyzed Smith, who was named the game’s first star and registered four shots along with his goal. “Guys were getting into shot lanes and blocking shots, and when Roy had to he came up big.”
• With the NHL on hiatus during the Olympics, the Heat got goalie Joni Ortio and defenceman Chris Breen back from the Calgary Flames on Saturday. Both should arrive in time to suit up for Sunday’s rematch with Texas. Ward said he’s not sure at this point whether he’ll give the starting nod to Ortio or Roy, given how well the latter is playing.
• Linesmen Ryan Gibbons and Nathan Vanoosten seemed to take an unusually long time to drop the puck on faceoffs on Saturday, with centremen frequently thrown out of the circle. Their eventful evening included getting an earful from Ward in the third period, and calling the faceoff violation on Knight.
Ward said the Knight penalty was “the right call”, but acknowledged a bit of friction with the linesmen throughout the game.
“People don’t realize how competitive it is at ice level, and the verbiage,” he said. “When the puck isn’t dropped well or there’s an offsides that’s questionable, it’s game on. The linesmen don’t like to be told certain things, and the players don’t like to be told certain things back. I got into it with the linesmen tonight a little bit.
“But I thought in the end, the linesmen did a nice job of communicating with our players. There was no hostility towards the end, and I thought likewise, our guys were better to them down the stretch. Because they’re trying to grow too, that’s what they’re here (in the AHL) for.”
• Heat rookie centre Markus Granlund had his five-game goal-scoring streak snapped. He registered three shots on net with a -1 rating.
• The Heat’s lone lineup change on Saturday saw Ben Hanowski in on the fourth line for Lane MacDermid.