For the Abbotsford Heat, struggling in their first game back home after a long road trip is becoming as predictable a phenomenon as cars in the ditch after a Fraser Valley snowstorm.
The Heat’s offence sputtered for much of Friday’s game at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre – Charlotte Checkers goalie John Muse picked up what might turn out to be the easiest shutout of his career as the visitors cruised to a 5-0 victory.
At the other end of the ice, the Checkers ventilated the Heat’s league-leading penalty kill, going 3-for-6. Coming in, Abbotsford had snuffed 87.9 per cent of opposition power plays.
It’s worth noting the Heat are an injury-riddled unit, missing key forwards Greg Nemisz and Jon Rheault, among others. But the ease with which the Checkers dispatched them didn’t sit well with the players.
“From the start, we just didn’t seem to be firing on all gears,” noted Heat blueliner Clay Wilson. “Things weren’t organized, and we were making bad reads.
“It just seemed like from the beginning we didn’t have it, and it never really came together.”
The first game back at the AESC after a road jaunt has been a persistent issue for the Heat over their first three campaigns in Abbotsford; the fact their travel is more grueling given their far-flung location relative to the rest of the AHL is an oft-cited and logical explanation.
Regardless, the Heat need to sort out a work-around – they’re 1-3 when returning from a road trip of three or more games this season, and have been out-scored 13-4 in those games.
“I don’t have any excuses for our hockey team, as to why we don’t play well when we come home,” Heat head coach Troy Ward said. “But I can tell you that coming off the road, coaching in Chicago or Milwaukee or Rockford is way different (due to the travel proximity).
“For us, it’s a little bit more difficult. But beyond the difficulty, you have to find ways to get it done. And we haven’t found that formula yet.”
Riley Nash got the Checkers on the board with a power-play goal at 3:42 of the first period. He got a stick on Bobby Sanguinetti’s point shot, and the puck bounced in front of Heat goalie Danny Taylor before squirting under his blocker.
Nicholas Blanchard made it 2-0 at 12:34 of the second, hustling to get in on a three-on-two rush and sniping glove-side on Taylor.
Late in the frame, a defensive-zone turnover by Wilson set the table for Checkers defenceman Justin Krueger to drift a seeing-eye shot from the point that hit the back of the net. It marked Krueger’s first career AHL goal.
Bobby Sanguinetti and Drayson Bowman tacked on power-play goals in the latter half of the third period to round out the scoring.
Chris Terry picked up four assists for Charlotte, while Muse stopped all 26 pucks that came his way. Taylor – making his 17th consecutive start for the Heat – turned aside 25 of 30 shots.
The Heat’s power play went 0-for-3 on Friday, marking the fifth straight game Abbotsford has failed to score on the man advantage. They’re on an 0-for-12 streak overall.
“Tonight we had a few chances, but it’s the second opportunities we aren’t getting,” Wilson said. “We’re getting one shot, and then we’re not recovering the pucks. When you’re chasing the puck down the ice and having to break out every time, it’s tough to maintain pressure.”
• Heat forward Dustin Sylvester, out of the lineup since Dec. 21 with a knee injury, returned on Friday. Skating on the second line, Sylvester registered two shots on goal and a -1 rating.
• Robby Dee, signed to a player tryout (PTO) contract on Friday afternoon, made his Heat debut and played on the fourth line. He’d posted 18 points in 20 games with the ECHL’s Bakersfield Condors.
• The Calgary Flames assigned centre Paul Byron to the Heat just prior to the opening faceoff on Friday, and he arrived at the rink mid-game. He’s expected to be in the lineup on Saturday, when the Heat and Checkers renew hostilities (7 p.m., AESC).
• Defenceman Brett Carson was also sent to the Heat after clearing waivers Friday, but his potential insertion into the lineup is complicated by AHL rules restricting the number of veteran players teams are allowed to suit up.
The Heat dressed the limit of six players on Friday who have surpassed certain professional games-played thresholds – Wilson, Quintin Laing, Guillaume Desbiens, Joe Piskula, Ben Walter and Krys Kolanos. One of those players would have to sit to allow Carson into the lineup. The Heat have quite a logjam in the veteran department, as Raitis Ivanans is also watching from the press box these days.
• Brett Sutter, who played for the Heat during their inaugural 2009-10 season, wore the captain’s ‘C’ for the Checkers.