If Abbotsford Heat fans were concerned with the state of the team’s goaltending after workhorse starter Leland Irving was recalled by the Calgary Flames earlier in the week, newcomer Danny Taylor calmed those fears in a big way on Friday evening.
Taylor, released by the Springfield Falcons on Nov. 29 and signed by the Heat on Dec. 2, was always steady and often spectacular in his home-ice debut, turning aside all 38 shots he faced in a 2-0 win over the Lake Erie Monsters at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
For good measure, Taylor picked up an assist on Krys Kolanos’s first-period goal, which stood up as the game-winner.
“I was a little nervous,” the 25-year-old netminder admitted with a grin, after improving his record with the Heat to 2-0. “But after the first shot, I felt pretty comfortable. It was nice to get one in the belly, and after that, the rest took care of itself.
“Our D and our forwards blocked as many as they could, and I don’t think there were many rebounds or second opportunities.”
Irving was leading the AHL in wins, shutouts and minutes played at the time of his recall, and Taylor came in knowing he has big skates to fill. But the well-travelled keeper said he’s just trying to stay within himself and focus on the things he does well.
He succeeded in that respect on Friday, in a game which despite its low final score, featured plenty of scoring chances as the two teams combined for 78 shots on goal.
Taylor’s best sequence came late in the second period. With Lance Bouma in the penalty box for running over Monsters goalie Cedrick Desjardins – his second such infraction of the game – Taylor made spectacular saves on point-blank shots from Ryan Stoa (with the left pad) and Hugh Jessiman (glove).
“Leland Irving is a great goalie, but I can only go out there and be myself and do the things that I do that make me successful,” Taylor noted. “Staying centered and square on pucks, trying not to give too many rebounds, putting rebounds in the corner, talking to my D. Just simple things you can do as a goalie to help the team out. That’s really my focus.”
The Heat thought they’d opened the scoring at 11:48 of the first period, as Jon Rheault tipped Jordan Henry’s point shot past Desjardins. But referee Jamie Koharski waved the goal off, ruling Rheault had contacted the puck with a high stick.
Just over four minutes later, Kolanos got a goal that counted. Taylor moved the puck ahead to defenceman Clay Wilson, who flipped it out of the Abbotsford zone and saw it drop in front of Monsters defenceman Jake Newton, who couldn’t get a handle on it. Kolanos deftly stole the puck from Newton and swept in on a breakaway, and beat Desjardins with a five-hole wrist shot.
Aside from Taylor’s terrific play, Friday’s win was defined by an entertaining and effective performance from the Heat’s unorthodox fourth line, featuring mighty mite Dustin Sylvester (5’6″, 174 pounds) between hulking enforcers Raitis Ivanans (6’3″, 240 lbs) and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond (6’2″, 209 lbs).
Both of the big men made their presence felt with big hits. In the first period, Monsters captain David Liffiton took a run at PL3 along the boards in the Heat zone, but the AHL’s penalty minute leader last season stopped him in his tracks.
In the middle frame, on a nearly identical play, Ivanans – one of the NHL’s busiest scrappers over the past decade – left Lake Erie forward Hugh Jessiman crumpled in a heap after the latter initiated contact.
In the direct aftermath of the Ivanans hit, the Heat brought the puck down into the Monsters zone, and Sylvester finished off a nice feed from Letourneau-Leblond by snapping a top-corner wrist shot over Desjardin’s glove. Both PL3 and Ivanans picked up assists on the goal.
Watching the trio operate on Friday, the most difficult thing was picking the perfect metaphor to describe the juxtaposition.
It could be said that Sylvester was the automotive equivalent of a Mini Cooper cruising down the highway flanked by two army tanks, or like Tom Cruise co-starring in a movie with Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris.
Heat head coach Troy Ward had a slightly different take.
“You talk about the size, it’s like Legoland out there,” he joked. “You’re building Legos, and you’ve got this big middle piece missing.”
Sylvester usually plays on the second line with Greg Nemisz and Paul Byron, but he moved down to the fourth unit to make way for Roman Horak, who was assigned to Abbotsford by the Flames on Friday morning.
“To play with those guys is a change for me, but at the same time, it’s fun,” Sylvester said with a grin. “They’re a couple big bodies out there. Guys are trying to hit them, and they’re just bouncing off them. They create a lot of room.”
The Heat have been tremendous on the road this season, but Friday’s win snapped a five-game losing streak at the AESC.
“We’ve been struggling at home, but I thought we came out tonight and had a great effort,” Sylvester said. “We need to clamp down on some things in our D-zone, but other than that, we played really well and our goalie stood on his head tonight.”
Monsters forward David Van der Gulik, an Abbotsford native and a member of the Heat back in 2009-10, played his first game back at the AESC as a visitor.
While he said it was fun to play in front of friends and family again, the end result was difficult to digest.
“All night we worked hard, had good looks and good chances,” said Van der Gulik, who came into Friday’s contest with 19 points in 19 games. “We tested [Taylor] pretty good – we had a lot of shots, but he was always following the play and following rebounds. He had a great night.”
So too did Kolanos – the trigger-happy forward personally accounted for a quarter of the Heat’s 40 shots on goal.
“I always come out with a shooting mentality,” he noted. “There’s no secrets to my game there . . . they know it’s coming.”
• The Heat and Monsters renew hostilities on Saturday (7 p.m., AESC).