Years from now, when Turner Elson recounts his first goal as a pro hockey player to his grandkids, it will morph into an end-to-end rush with a top-corner finish.
In reality, his tally on Friday evening was more about effort than aesthetic beauty, but it nevertheless sparked the Abbotsford Heat to victory in their regular season home opener.
With Milwaukee Admirals goalie Magnus Hellberg frustrating the Heat for the better part of two periods, Elson stunned the visitors by poking the puck in on a harmless-looking play with 4.6 seconds left in the middle frame.
That goal tied the contest 1-1 heading to the third, and set the stage for the Heat’s 3-2 overtime victory before 3,413 fans at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
“You dream of getting your first goal as a pro – maybe not as greasy as mine, but they all count in the end,” Elson said with a wide grin afterward.
“It feels good.”
After the pre-game player introductions and other season-opening festivities wrapped up, Elson and the Heat got off to a lethargic start.
The Admirals carried the play and earned three consecutive power plays in the first period, but had nothing to show for it.
The Heat, for their part, generated a couple of nice looks against the run of play, but Hellberg stoned Josh Jooris with the left pad and Roman Horak with the glove to keep goose eggs on the scoreboard.
The Admirals opened the scoring at 6:45 of the second period during a Heat power play. Austin Watson (6’3″, 203 pounds) out-muscled Abby defenceman Chad Billins (5’10”, 180) behind the Heat net and fed Patrick Cehlin, who was alone in front. Cehlin swept the puck through the poke check of Heat goalie Reto Berra and slid it inside the far post.
The hosts started generating more of a sustained offensive push at that point, but were unable to solve Hellberg until the dying seconds of the frame.
The goal came on a seemingly innocent play – Heat centre Brett Olson flicked the puck high and into the Admirals’ zone, and Milwaukee defenceman Anthony Bitetto and Elson gave chase. Bitetto had a step on the Heat winger, and in any event, Hellberg seemed to render Elson’s hustle null and void when he came out with the intention of chipping the puck out of harm’s way.
But Elson executed an inside-out swim move to get around Bitetto, then tipped the puck just enough to change its path and slide under Hellberg’s stick and into the bottom corner of the net.
“It was obviously the turning point of the game,” head coach Troy Ward said. “If we’re down after two, it’s a different game. It certainly gave us some momentum and gave our young kids some energy in the locker room. We went into the third with a different mindset after that.”
Indeed, the Heat had some jump in the final frame, and took the lead on another tremendous hustle play – this one from Ben Hanowski. The right winger forced a turnover deep in the Milwaukee zone, then finished off a three-way passing play with Corban Knight and Jooris by roofing a shot just under the crossbar. It was his team-leading third goal of the year.
Admirals forward Taylor Beck roofed a shot of his own just over two minutes later to knot the score once again, after tracking down the puck on a goalmouth scramble.
But in overtime, Beck was banished to the box for hooking, and the Heat struck on the power play.
On the rush, Paul Byron sent Knight in on the right wing. Running out of room with a defender closing in, the rookie centre sent the puck into the crease for a hard-charging Greg Nemisz, and it somehow found its way past Hellberg.
The referees gave Nemisz credit for the goal, but it appeared that Knight played an expert game of pinball to find the back of the net.
“Honestly, I was just trying to pass it to Nemo on the other side there,” Knight recounted. “Luckily it went off two guys – the defenceman and the goalie – and then it went in. I definitely wasn’t expecting that, but it was a nice surprise.”
Prior to the OT winner, the Heat’s power-play struggles had been one of the dominant storylines of the night. Abbotsford came up empty on six consecutive power plays, including 1:48 of two-man advantage midway through the third period.
“[The power play] is a work in progress,” acknowledged Ward, whose team finished 1-for-7 on the man advantage compared to the Admirals’ 0-for-4. “We used three different units. We feel good about the guys that are on the bus. We just have to get them in the right seats. We just need to be patient with them.”
• Defenceman Chris Breen, assigned to Abbotsford on Thursday for a 14-day conditioning stint, made his season debut on Friday, slotting in alongside Drew MacKenzie. The Heat’s all-time games played leader (205 and counting) had been out since mid-March after undergoing shoulder surgery.
“It was good to have Chris back – it made us feel like we had a real presence back there,” Ward said. “It was a little different feeling tonight from last weekend. I think you saw the confidence Chris had . . . I thought he stepped right in and didn’t miss a beat.”
• Breen replaced Patrick Sieloff in the lineup. The AHL’s youngest player suffered a lower-body injury at practice this week, and is not expected to be out long-term according to Ward.
• Berra, who has started all three of the Heat’s games this season, made 24 saves in his home-ice debut.
“Reto battled hard,” Ward said. “One of the things we’re working on is making sure he can see pucks, and we have some work to do there. But in general he battled very hard to find pucks, which was key. He’s put us in position, for his third start in a row . . . to win.”
• Hockey Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur (pictured below) was at the AESC on Friday, signing autographs during the Heat’s first Legends of Hockey promotion of the season.
• The Heat (2-1-0) and Admirals (0-0-1) renew hostilities on Saturday (7 p.m., AESC).