The Abbotsford Heat skated onto the ice between pillars of flame during pregame introductions on Friday evening – all part of the festivities for the AHL club’s home opener.
Then they generated some offensive fireworks of their own, exploding for three unanswered goals in a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Rockford IceHogs.
The hosts stumbled out of the gate, falling behind by scores of 2-0 and 3-1 in the first period. But they wowed the crowd of 5,450 at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre with an impressive rally, capped by goals from Jon Rheault and Greg Nemisz 44 seconds apart early in the third period.
“We’re feeling pretty good, but tonight definitely wasn’t the way we drew it up,” noted Nemisz, whose team is still undefeated three games into the regular season. “It’s good to win 4-3 and get the two points, but we definitely want to fix a lot of things in our game and be a lot better Sunday.”
Indeed, it wasn’t a perfect performance by any stretch, but the Heat demonstrated that they’ve got the offensive proficiency to cover over a multitude of sins.
The hosts got off to a ragged start, having to kill off a Clay Wilson tripping penalty just 50 seconds into the contest, then once back at even strength, icing the puck three times in quick succession.
Rockford took advantage, opening the scoring at the 5:09 mark as Jeremy Morin waltzed around Abby defenceman Chris Breen unmolested and slipped a shot between the pads of goalie Leland Irving.
Kyle Beach made it 2-0 just over three minutes later, ripping a slap shot from the left point that found its way past Irving, who was screened on the play.
Ben Walter got the Heat on the board at 12:12 of the first, one-timing a lovely pass from Nemisz, who had been stationed behind the net, through the legs of Rockford goalie Alec Richards.
Brandon Pirri restored the IceHogs’ two-goal edge in the final minute of the frame on another long-distance shot that Irving lost track of through a crowd.
But just 15 seconds later, T.J. Brodie set up Paul Byron in the slot, and he hammered a slapper past Richards to draw the Heat to within 3-2 following a wild opening 20 minutes.
The second period was scoreless, but the Heat had a golden opportunity midway through the frame as Lance Bouma took a breakaway pass coming out of the penalty box, but was hooked by Rockford defenceman Ryan Stanton as he bore down on the net.
The sophomore forward was awarded a penalty shot, but Richards stuck right with him as he deked to the backhand.
The IceHogs out-shot the Heat 12-7 in the period, and really owned the latter half of the frame, hemming Abbotsford in for long stretches.
Coming out of the locker room for the third period, the Heat were a different team.
Just 61 seconds in, Rheault leveled the score on a breakaway, beating Richards with a high glove-side wrist shot. He’d been sprung thanks to a slick feed from Guillaume Desbiens.
Before the home crowd’s cheers had died down, Dustin Sylvester got a step on a Rockford defenceman, then whirled and fired a spin-o-rama pass to a hard-charging Nemisz, who chipped the puck past Richards.
“He (Sylvester) is such a good playmaker, I knew he saw me in the corner of his eye,” Nemisz recounted. “So I just busted to the net, and he made a great play and I just got a stick on it.”
Rheault had a great chance to finish off the IceHogs later on, but Richards dove headlong left-to-right to rob the Heat winger, who had been set up beautifully by Byron on a two-on-one break.
Rallies were few and far between for last season’s scoring-challenged Abby squad, but Friday’s comeback win showed this edition of the Heat has an element of offensive creativity in its DNA.
“It’s nice to be able to score goals and know you’re not buried when they get two or three goals on you,” Nemisz noted.
“We’re trying to ramp up the way we play,” Heat head coach Troy Ward said. “We believe the attack is the most critical part of our game, and that if we can get pucks to the net off the attack, then I think our skill will show.”
Friday’s game marked the first time in three seasons that the Heat have won their home opener. They had lost in grotesque fashion on both of the prior occasions – blowing a two-goal lead in the third period en route to a 6-5 OT loss to the San Antonio Rampage in 2009, and falling 5-0 to the IceHogs in 2010.
“It’s great for the organization to get that kind of monkey off our back,” Ward said. “It’s tough to win a home opener. It’s something you battle through, and it’s something we fought through for a while there . . . We kind of settled into ourselves as the game went on.”
The same could be said of Irving. Ward wasn’t a big fan of the second and third goals the Heat keeper allowed, but felt he bounced back in the second and third periods.
“I felt unfortunate for Leland on that very first goal,” Ward said. “It was like, olé once, olé twice, and then he had to stop a breakaway, basically.
“Then I thought the next two goals, personally I thought Leland should have had. Those were ones where I think he didn’t work as hard as he normally does to find pucks.
“But at the same time, he’s a good goalie and he’s got to find himself. And he found his stride, obviously.”
• The Heat and IceHogs renew hostilities on Sunday afternoon. The puck drops at 1 p.m. at the AESC.
• Heat defenceman John Negrin was assigned to the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies on Friday morning.
• Goalie Joni Ortio dressed as the backup for the first time this season, after David Brown handled the chores last weekend on the road against the Lake Erie Monsters. Ward said he plans to carry three goalies for about another week and a half, but plans to cut down to two prior to the next road trip, a four-gamer that begins Oct. 26 in Toronto.
“The new group of people on the hockey side (with the Calgary Flames) is more into merit,” Ward said. “They’re not so much into what we drafted four years ago – what your level was or what your entry contract was. Obviously there’s always a forgiving part of the game where certain guys will get a little more benefits than others, but right now it’s merit-based, and guys understand that. That’s the part that’s making us a better hockey team.”
Rockford’s Jeremy Morin slips a shot between Leland Irving’s pads early in the first period Friday.