For a moment, it looked like Mitch Wahl’s return to the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre was going to be of the storybook variety.
The former Heat centre, loaned to the Hamilton Bulldogs on Nov. 17 after struggling to crack the Abbotsford lineup on a regular basis, was sent out by Bulldogs coach Clement Jodoin to open the shootout on Friday evening after the two teams battled to a 3-3 deadlock through regulation and overtime.
He made the most of his opportunity, using a slick backhand-forehand move to freeze Heat goalie Danny Taylor before flicking a shot over Taylor’s glove, off the goalpost and in.
Wahl’s successful attempt gave the Montreal Canadiens’ affiliate the early advantage in the shootout, but like all of the Bulldogs’ leads on this night, it soon evaporated.
Ben Walter and Krys Kolanos solved Hamilton goalie Nathan Lawson in the breakaway contest, while Taylor stymied the next four Bulldogs shooters as the Heat claimed a 4-3 victory. It was their sixth in a row, and improved their record in the shootout to 5-0 this season.
The Heat had trailed 3-1 as the clock ticked past the midway point of the third period. But the hosts rallied on goals by Dustin Sylvester and Clay Wilson, and finished the job in the shootout.
“Our character is very high,” Heat head coach Troy Ward asserted afterward. “It’s a good group of people, and we’ve said that even though we haven’t played well at times at home.”
Kolanos opened the scoring at 2:59 of the first period, wiring a wrist shot past Lawson on the power play.
Hamilton’s Gabriel Dumont equalized at the 7:19 mark, taking a pretty behind-the-back feed from Joonas Nattinen and sweeping the puck around Heat keeper Taylor.
Just 49 seconds into the middle frame, Dany Masse staked the Bulldogs to their first lead of the game. Taylor kicked out a point shot from Frederic St-Denis, but Masse gobbled up the juicy rebound and swatted it home.
The Heat got into some penalty trouble late in the middle frame, as defencemen John Negrin and Jordan Henry took overlapping penalties to give the Bulldogs over a minute of five-on-three power play time bridging the second and third periods.
The hosts killed off Negrin’s penalty, but just 22 seconds after emerging from the sin bin, he was sent right back for hooking.
With Henry still in the box, the Bulldogs made the Heat pay, as Garrett Stafford picked the top corner over Taylor’s glove.
Rookie Ryan Howse, skating on the fourth line, turned in a lively shift to swing the momentum. He threw two big hits on the forecheck, the second of which prompted Stafford to take a swing at him.
Nine seconds into the ensuing power play, Sylvester hammered home a slap shot off a feed from Paul Byron to cut the deficit to one.
Less than three minutes later, Wilson pinched in from the point during a goalmouth scramble and chipped in a loose puck.
“I knew I had a D-partner back, and I just kind of waited and hoped it would pop out,” Wilson said. “That time of game, big scrum, you’ve got to be ready and get in there. It just popped right on my stick, and easy goal.”
The overtime period was wildly entertaining, as the two teams both had chances to end it. Taylor had his best save of the night, going right-to-left to make a stunning left pad save on Phil DeSimone on the rush. Then in the final minute, Hamilton’s Brian Willsie and Abby’s Wilson were stymied on golden opportunities.
The Heat made one final rally in the shootout, but Wahl’s goal was a nice moment in what has been a trying season for the sophomore pro.
“I was just praying that something good would go for me, and I got a lucky bounce there off the post,” the Seal Beach, Calif. native said afterward.
Wahl had an opportunity to go for dinner with some of his buddies on the Heat team yesterday, but he’s been looking forward to this trip to Abbotsford for practical reasons as well.
“I still have all my things here – I have my truck, all my clothes,” he noted with a wry chuckle. “I got sent there (to Hamilton) when we were on the road, so I’ve just got a little bag that I’ve been living out of for the last month. I’ll be able to grab a few things here, which will be nice.”
The offensive numbers have been slow to materialize for Wahl this season – he’s posted just one assist in 15 games with the Heat and Bulldogs combined. The loan transaction, too, was jarring for him.
“I’ve never been traded before in my career,” he noted. “They (the Heat) are pretty deep up the middle, and they tried to put me in a better situation here in Hamilton. It hasn’t really been exactly what I expected yet, but the season’s fairly early still. So I’m going to keep working hard, and hopefully I can fit in here.”
With the win, the Heat (19-8-1-0, 39 points) moved to within a point of the Houston Aeros for first place overall in the AHL. But bench boss Ward was concerned with some of the penalties his club took on Friday – part of an “ongoing issue,” he said.
“It’s a hockey sense issue,” he added. “It’s players being put in uncomfortable positions in what I call the moments of truth, and they have to make a really good decision. We have some players who don’t make good decisions in moments of truth, and that’s the bottom line. That’s a brain activity.”
• Russ Sinkewich, signed to a player tryout (PTO) contract by the Heat on Tuesday, drew into the lineup on Friday. He took the spot vacated by Brett Carson, who was called up by the Calgary Flames last Sunday at the end of a two-week conditioning stint. Sinkewich, who was recently with the ECHL’s Alaska Aces, saw 15:34 of ice time.
• On the ice time front, Brendan Mikkelson was a workhorse for the Heat, logging an eye-popping 30:59 against the Bulldogs. He was particularly effective on the penalty kill, and picked up an assist on Sylvester’s goal.
• The three-goal output represented a veritable offensive explosion for the Bulldogs, who came into Friday’s game as the AHL’s lowest-scoring team with just 54 goals in 26 games.
• The Heat lost winger Jon Rheault to a lower-body injury late in Friday’s game.
“I don’t see Rheault probably playing on Sunday,” Ward said. “I don’t know about next week, but I don’t see us pushing it at this particular time.”
• Leland Irving, the Heat’s starting goalie the past two seasons, played well in his first career NHL start with the Calgary Flames on Friday evening. He stopped 39 of 41 shots in regulation and overtime against the Florida Panthers, but the host Panthers prevailed 3-2 in the shootout.
“I watched almost 90 per cent of that game today, and I thought he was outstanding,” Ward said. “I couldn’t be happier for him, and I think our whole room felt that.
“There wasn’t one guy who didn’t watch the whole first period as we got prepared to play. We actually had to shut the TV down, they were so hopeful Leland would have a good game in his first crack. That tells you about the group in there. They were really pulling for him.”
• The Heat and Bulldogs renew hostilities on Sunday at 1 p.m., and that game features the annual teddy bear toss. Fans are invited to bring a stuffed animal and throw it on the ice after the Heat’s first goal, to be collected for children in need through the Abbotsford Christmas Bureau. Fans who bring a stuffed animal can check in at section 101 to receive a free ticket voucher for the Heat’s March 7 game vs. the Houston Aeros.