Call it a monkey, call it an elephant, call it a piano.
Whichever metaphor you prefer, Ryan Howse felt a significant weight slide off his back on Saturday evening.
The Abbotsford Heat rookie right winger, a highly touted goal-scorer coming out of the Western Hockey League, opened his pro career by going without a point in his first 20 games.
Along the way, Heat head coach Troy Ward gave Howse a humbling month-long sabbatical to address subpar nutrition and fitness habits, and he missed another five weeks with a shoulder injury.
But at the 7:19 mark of the first period on Saturday, Howse finally had his moment.
Stationed in front of Houston Aeros goalie Matt Hackett, Howse got the heel of his stick on a wrist shot by Guillaume Desbiens. The puck slowed to a crawl and disappeared underneath Hackett for a second, but it had just enough momentum to slide through the keeper’s legs and over the goal line.
Howse’s milestone tally got the Heat started on their way in a 4-1 win over Houston at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. And in that moment, if the wattage of a smile could be harnessed, Howse’s could have powered the Las Vegas Strip.
“It’s the biggest relief of my hockey career,” said Howse, who scored 51 goals in 70 WHL games with the Chilliwack Bruins last season. “I didn’t know how long it would take, to be honest.
“I normally take a pregame nap, but I didn’t sleep one bit today. I just thought I was going to come out here and have fun – come to the rink happy, just forget about scoring goals. And look what happens. It’s a weird game.”
The Heat (28-20-3-0, 59 points) completed a weekend sweep of the Aeros to move to within three points of Houston (25-16-3-9) for second place in the AHL’s West Division standings.
Just 33 seconds after Howse’s goal, Brett Carson made it 2-0, taking a drop pass from Hugh Jessiman and hammering a slap shot past Hackett. That marked the end of Hackett’s night – he got the hook in favour of Darcy Kuemper after surrendering two goals on seven shots.
Trying to generate any kind of spark, the Aeros cranked it up the physicality department. Off the ensuing faceoff following Carson’s goal, Houston’s Rob Mignardi dropped the gloves with Carter Bancks, but absorbed a steady diet of right jabs from the Heat sparkplug. Shortly thereafter, Brad Staubitz of the Aeros scrapped with Guillaume Desbiens, and late in the frame, Houston’s Joel Broda earned a five-minute major and a game misconduct for head-butting.
Jon DiSalvatore, with his third goal of the weekend set, got the Aeros on the board on a power play just past the midway point of the second period, redirecting a hard pass from Chay Genoway past Heat goalie Henrik Karlsson.
The hosts struggled on the power play for much of the evening, coming up empty on their first six man-advantage opportunities. But they made good on a pair of two-man advantages in the third period to salt the game away.
With Houston’s C.J. Stretch (hooking) and David McIntyre (boarding) in the box, Greg Nemisz wheeled into the slot and sniped top corner over Kuemper’s glove – a picture-perfect shot at the 14:20 mark.
In the aftermath, the Aeros picked up a bench minor, apparently protesting the previous two calls. Heat captain Quintin Laing made them pay with a blue-collar effort, jamming in the puck on a goalmouth scramble while being knocked to the ice.
“We paid a price tonight,” Laing noted afterward. “Guys were bleeding, and there were a lot of ice bags in that dressing room. But that’s what it takes to sweep a team.”
The Heat had no shortage of big-time contributors – Nemisz, Laing, Adam Estoclet and Clay Wilson all had multi-point outings, and Karlsson made 21 saves for his second straight win.
But it was Howse’s night.
“The whole team was elated,” Ward said, reflecting on the rookie’s first goal. “This kid’s really paid his dues, more off the ice than on.
“He’s one of our best teammates, he’s very polished for a young man, and he’s worked extremely hard. It’s a real feel-good story.”
Howse said he didn’t even see the puck go in the net.
“I just saw Lainger with his hands up, and it put a big smile on my face,” the 20-year-old said with a grin.
Howse noted it’s been a “really rocky” season to this point, and acknowledged his conditioning was an issue in the early going.
“I put myself in that position, and I had to get myself out,” he said. “No one’s going to feel sorry for you. You’ve just got to go out and work every night.”
Carson, a healthy scratch the previous two games due to AHL veteran restrictions, drew back in on the blueline for Joe Piskula. In addition to his goal, he was excellent in his own zone, particularly on the penalty kill.
“I thought Brett played more passionate than he’s played,” Ward said of Carson, who is on a one-way contract and has battled injuries for much of the season. “He’s been through a little bit of turmoil, but he’s trying to settle in.
“I was happy for him to get a goal, but beyond that, I thought he played much harder than he had been playing.”
• Up next for the Heat is a five-game road trip, beginning Tuesday at the Peoria Rivermen.
• Karlsson, the erstwhile Calgary Flames backup goalie, is likely ticketed back to the NHL, as his two-week conditioning stint is set to expire.