There have been better goaltending duels than the one that Abbotsford Heat netminder Reto Berra and his Milwaukee Admirals counterpart Magnus Hellberg staged this weekend.
But rarely have there been any that were bigger.
Both keepers cast long shadows in the crease – Berra goes 6’4″, 200 pounds, while Hellberg is a towering 6’5″, 192 – and give opposing shooters precious little to shoot at.
Berra, the 26-year-old Swiss who is making his first foray into North American pro hockey this season, got the better of Hellberg on Friday, backstopping the Heat to a 3-2 overtime victory.
But Hellberg got his revenge on Saturday, stopping all but one of the 27 shots the Heat sent his way during regulation and all four Abby attempts in the shootout as the Admirals claimed a 2-1 triumph and a split of the weekend series at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
“They’re both big guys, so even it they can’t quite see the puck, they can cover the low net,” Heat forward Brett Olson said, breaking down the challenge that such enormous, athletic goalies present. “When pucks are bouncing around, it hits off their feet or pads.
“Reto was outstanding,” Olson added. “He made some saves that he probably shouldn’t have made, and he made the saves he was supposed to make. With that combination, it’s a great thing.”
Indeed, Berra has been nothing short of spectacular in the early portion of the season. He’s started all four of the Heat’s games to date, and boasts a stellar 1.95 goals against average and a .933 save percentage.
On Saturday, he kept the Heat in the game in the first period, with his best saves coming during a full two-minute five-on-three power play for the Admirals. With the visitors buzzing around the net, Berra went post-to-post to make a series of spectacular stops in quick succession.
Hellberg was equal to the task at the other end, and neither team could coax a puck across the goal line over the first 40 minutes.
Heat forward Roman Horak broke the deadlock on a power play just 41 seconds into the third period. With Admirals defenceman Anthony Bitetto in the box for interference, Max Reinhart whipped a pass across the goalmouth to Horak, and the third-year pro dropped to one knee for a one-timer that squeezed in just before Hellberg was able to get across to the far post.
The Admirals drew even with 5:44 remaining in regulation on a shot that Berra never saw. Off a faceoff in the Heat zone, Taylor Beck’s shot through a crowd took a couple of redirections before trickling between the Heat goalie’s pads. North Vancouver native Colton Sissons got credit for the goal – his first as a pro.
In the shootout, Hellberg continued to bedevil the Heat – Horak, Reinhart, Michael Ferland and Paul Byron all came away frustrated in the breakaway contest.
Meanwhile, two of three Admirals shooters put pucks past Berra to seal the win. Beck picked the bottom corner, glove side, with a wrist shot, while Patrick Cehlin came cruising in and hammered home a slap shot from the hashmarks.
But in the aftermath, no one was blaming Berra. The Calgary Flames’ organizational goaltending depth chart is still very much in flux, and Berra is doing all he can to assert his name in the conversation with Karri Ramo and Joey MacDonald, the NHL parent club’s current keepers.
“I think Reto’s putting himself, posturely, in a real good position in the organization,” Heat head coach Troy Ward said. “All the things he was advertised to be, coming over from Europe . . . I think he’s done that. He’s adapted to this rink size, and adapted now to the AHL. He’s playing real well. We’re real proud of him right now.”
Saturday’s game, with its goaltending theatrics and physical edge, had a bit of a playoff vibe to it, which is a strange thing to say about a game played in October.
Heat forward Greg Nemisz took the brunt of the Admirals’ aggression – Milwaukee forward Michael Liambas dumped him head-first into the bench with a huge first-period check, and in the third period, Bitetto picked up a double-minor for high-sticking after whacking Nemisz in the mouth and drawing blood.
“There was definitely a notice on our bench about the physicality they tried to bring in the first period,” Olson said. “It was something we had to adjust to at first – we got a little complicated with plays, and we had to simplify things. We held onto the puck too long, and it hemmed us in our zone.”
• The Heat (2-1-1) hit the road this week for three games in three days – Friday and Saturday at the Oklahoma City Barons, and Sunday at the Texas Stars. The next home dates are Oct. 25-26 vs. the Lake Erie Monsters.