Even on a night when their puck luck could hardly have been any worse, there was no quit in the Abbotsford Heat.
The Heat’s trademark as they’ve climbed to first place overall in the AHL has been their resilience – coming into Friday’s tilt with the Utica Comets, they actually had a winning record (4-3) when trailing after two periods.
The hosts found themselves in precisely that position, as the Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate led 2-0 after 40 minutes and extended their cushion to 3-0 on Darren Archibald’s power-play goal.
The Heat mounted a rally with less than six minutes remaining, though, as Michael Ferland and Greg Nemisz scored man-advantage markers 44 seconds apart.
But that was as close as they got, despite a 37-17 edge in shots on goal for the game. Comets backup goalie Joe Cannata picked up his first victory of the season as Utica (which was last overall in the AHL coming in) won 3-2 in front of 4,260 fans at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
“It’s the hallmark of this team so far, that it’s never say die,” Heat captain Dean Arsene said. “It’s been fun to be a part of some of those, and we just came up short tonight.
“When we got that second one, I think everyone on the bench was really believing, thinking we were going to come back. We started pressuring them, creating some opportunities, just couldn’t get that third one.”
The Heat may have had the shots-on-goal edge, but Arsene and head coach Troy Ward both lamented post-game that too many of those shots came from the perimeter during the first two periods. Abbotsford drove harder to the net in the final frame, and it was no coincidence that they were finally rewarded with a couple of goals.
The Comets, meanwhile, exhibited a proficiency with bank shots that evoked San Antonio Spurs basketball star Tim Duncan.
Two of Utica’s three goals ricocheted in off Heat players. Cal O’Reilly opened the scoring when his centering feed took a 90-degree turn off Ben Street and slid into the far side of the cage, stunning Heat goalie Joni Ortio.
Archibald’s third-period tally was a pinball job – Yannick Weber’s point shot bounced off him in front and then off Arsene’s shin pad on its way in.
“Orts deserved better than what he got tonight,” Arsene noted. “The third one, I think I was the third person it hit there. It was such a quick bang-bang play, there was nothing I could do. It just went off midway up my shin pad.
Between O’Reilly and Archibald’s bank shots, Pascal Pelletier found a loose puck that Ortio thought he covered with his glove but had trickled out, and tapped it in at 7:36 of the second period.
The Heat rally began in the waning minutes with Ferland beating Cannata with a wrist shot from the top of the right circle. Nemisz trimmed the deficit to one shortly thereafter, jamming the puck home on a goalmouth scramble.
But Cannata kept them at bay from that point, and afterward, the Comets goalie noted his team is taking steps in the right direction. They’ve now won five of their last eight games after opening the season with 10 straight losses, and recent veteran signees like O’Reilly have bolstered the club.
“We’ve been in every game,” Cannata said. “We have some more depth here. I feel our lineup is getting stronger.”
While Cannata was registering his first win in four starts this season, Ortio sustained his first defeat. The Finnish keeper had begun the season on a personal nine-game win streak.
“What a great run – great for Joni,” Ward said. “The guy did a tremendous job, played well for us all year. Tonight was no different.
“The team wants to battle really hard for him. That’s a big part of being a great goalie at the NHL or AHL – you’ve got to have guys who will want to go to war for you in front. He’s matured so much that he’s put himself in a position where the guys love playing in front of him and battled hard for him. That’s happening for the first time in his Abbotsford career.”
Ferland was arguably the best player on the ice on Friday, notching a Gordie Howe hat trick with a goal, an assist and a fight. His second-period scrap with Utica D-man Kent Huskins was ruthlessly efficient – his first punch, an uppercut, dropped Huskins to the ice.
“All the success I’ve been having is just because I’ve been moving my feet,” said Ferland, who has racked up 13 points in his last nine games. “Troy’s been giving me a lot of opportunity, and I’ve just taken advantage of it.”
The Heat were playing with less-than-optimum personnel, their roster having been ravaged by injuries (Tyler Wotherspoon, Mark Cundari, Brady Lamb, Patrick Sieloff), illness (Markus Granlund) and NHL recall (Blair Jones, Max Reinhart, Paul Byron, Chris Breen).
Those absences necessitated the insertion of four recent ECHL call-ups in the lineup on Friday: forwards Peter Sivak and David Eddy, and defencemen Kane Lafranchise and James Martin.
“Those four got good minutes,” Ward observed. “That’s good for them and good that for the first time this year we were able to use our Alaska (Aces ECHL affiliate) a bit, and that’s important because we’re going to need them at different times. Mission accomplished. Those guys did a nice job for us.”
• The Heat (17-6-1) and Comets (5-11-2) renew hostilities at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
• Former Canucks goalie Kirk McLean signed autographs and dropped the puck for the ceremonial opening faceoff on Friday as part of the Heat’s Legends of Hockey series of promotions.