Goalie Olivier Roy, who got the hook in his last two starts, was outstanding on Friday evening, turning aside 26 of 27 shots in the Heat’s 3-1 victory over the Utica Comets.
The winning goal was supplied by Brendan Connolly, a mid-week call-up from the ECHL who notched his first career AHL goal with 12 seconds remaining in the second period.
The victory not only snapped the Heat’s recent run of futility, it also ended a six-game losing skid against the Comets. The Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate has given Abbotsford fits this season, having won the last six head-to-head match-ups.
“It’s huge,” Roy said, reflecting on the significance of the result. “We’ve been having a rough stretch lately, especially against Utica, who came in here before and stole games. They play hard and never quit. We tried to match their intensity today and we did a good job of keeping it in their zone.”
The Heat’s recent losing streak has dovetailed with a rash of NHL recalls and injuries. The likes of Markus Granlund, Corban Knight and Joni Ortio are currently up with the NHL parent Calgary Flames, while Sven Baertschi and Blair Jones headline the group of players in the sick bay.
The personnel situation got so bad last Sunday that Heat head coach Troy Ward ended up playing three defencemen out of position at forward during a loss to the Chicago Wolves.
Abbotsford got some relief this week, as Max Reinhart returned from the Calgary Flames and Connolly and Tim Miller (acquired for future considerations from the San Antonio Rampage) were also added to the forward corps.
But by and large, it was still a patchwork lineup that took to the ice on Friday, which made the victory all the more impressive and meaningful.
“For this group to win, that’s important, because I don’t know if the group’s really going to change that much,” Ward said. “We’d be banking on something to happen in Calgary, if they were to get healthy or things like that. We don’t have any time to wait for that. This is the group we have right now, and we have to understand that.”
Josh Jooris opened the scoring for the Heat on a power play at 12:25 of the first period, backhanding a feed from Reinhart past Comets goalie Joacim Eriksson for his 10th of the season.
Abby dominated the second, out-shooting Utica 16-7, but it took until the waning seconds for Connolly to sneak a shot past Eriksson, who was outstanding in the frame. After Eriksson denied Derek Smith and then Corey Locke on the rebound, the puck caromed over to Connolly, and he swatted it into a wide-open net.
“It’s definitely nice to get the first one,” said Connolly, who has been a prolific scorer at the ECHL level but hadn’t scored in 18 previous AHL games.
“That net didn’t look too big when I was shooting that puck, so when I saw it go in it was definitely a good feeling.”
The only puck that got past Roy was actually a bank shot by Utica’s Alex Grenier off Heat centre Ben Street during a power play at 8:33 of the third.
But Smith, into an empty net with 28 seconds remaining, rounded out the scoring to clinch Abbotsford’s first win since Feb. 21 at the Milwaukee Admirals.
The Heat’s last six losses had come over a compressed nine-day stretch, and Ward felt that having four full days between games did his team good.
“I just thought it was critical that we had good energy, and the energy would hopefully transfer into something more manageable than what we’ve played like of late,” he said.
A big part of that energy came from Connolly, who earned a promotion from the fourth line to the second unit with Street and Brett Olson early in the second period and stayed there for the duration of the game.
“Brendan, I thought, had really great legs in the first . . . but he only got three shifts,” Ward explained. “I thought he was playing more like a thoroughbred, like we want to play. We want to play fast, and Trupper (Evan Trupp, who started on the second line) wasn’t necessarily playing poorly, in my opinion, he just didn’t have the energy in his legs. So I made the switch.
“He got a big goal, so it worked out for us.”
• The Heat (34-21-7, 75 points) and Comets (26-27-7, 59 points) renew hostilities on Saturday (7 p.m., AESC).
• The Heat signed Brown University forward Garnet Hathaway to an AHL contract on Friday morning.