The trio combined for all six of the Heat’s goals in a 6-3 victory over the Rockford IceHogs at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
Knight snapped a 10-game goalless drought in emphatic fashion, notching a hat trick, while Baertschi authored a five-point night (two goals, three assists) and Miller (one goal, two assists) was perhaps the most impactful of the three on a shift-to-shift basis.
Their efficiency allowed the hosts to escape with a deceptively lopsided victory – the IceHogs boasted a 48-18 edge in shots on goal.
The Heat, though, got a typically brilliant 45-save performance out of goalie Joni Ortio, while Rockford didn’t get the same level of consistency between the pipes. Starter Jason LaBarbera – who spent some time in the Abbotsford Minor Hockey Association during his youth – got the hook in favour of backup Kent Simpson in the second period after allowing four goals on 12 shots.
“I thought I was back in Wisconsin, driving on I-94,” cracked Heat head coach Troy Ward, reflecting on his team’s hang-on-for-dear-life posture most of the night. “There were a lot of deer in the headlights. We kind of just watched the game pass us by.”
The Heat have traditionally struggled in their first game back at home after a long road trip, and they stayed true to form with a slow start on Friday.
The IceHogs dominated the first 10 minutes of the game, outshooting Abby 12-1, and opened the scoring on a fantastic goal by Mark McNeill. The IceHogs centre, drafted in the first round (18th overall) by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011, came blazing down the left wing and blew past Heat defenceman Zach Davies before tucking the puck inside the far post behind Ortio.
The hosts found some traction in the latter half of the first period, though, reeling off three quick goals.
Miller, a journeyman right winger who has played for five teams (four AHL, one ECHL) this season alone, drew the hosts even with a great individual effort. He tipped captain Dean Arsene’s point shot on net, then whacked his own rebound past LaBarbera.
Knight followed up with goals on back-to-back shifts. His first came on the power play – Max Reinhart’s shot was tipped by Baertschi in the slot and again by Knight at the top of the crease on its way to the back of the net.
Just 1:24 later, an IceHogs’ defensive-zone turnover led to Knight chipping a point-blank shot by LaBarbera.
Alex Broadhurst got the IceHogs back to within a goal just 49 seconds into the second period. But Knight completed the first hat trick of his pro hockey career on a jam play at the net, and Baertschi made it 5-2 when his shot from in tight banked off a Rockford defender’s shin pad.
IceHogs blueliner Adam Clendening scored a power-play goal late in the second period, but despite dominating the third – and pulling their goalie with four minutes left – Rockford would get no closer.
Baertschi, into an empty net with 42 seconds left, rounded out the scoring.
Afterward, Knight said it was “definitely a relief” to snap his goal-scoring drought.
“Both my linemates, Miller and Baertschi, made it pretty easy tonight,” he said. “You look at my goals and none of them were really that flashy, so it was just nice to get that off my back and contribute offensively for my team.
“I think both Baertschi and Miller have been playing extremely well lately. Baertschi’s been putting up a lot of points and producing offensively. (Miller) is the kind of guy where he just brings his lunch pail and just works hard and gets a lot of pucks back. Tonight it was just kind of clicking for us.”
Ward hailed Miller as his team’s best player on the night – heady praise for a forward who has bounced around an awful lot this season. The 27-year-old has had stints with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, Springfield Falcons and San Antonio Rampage, and the ECHL’s Evansville Icemen.
“It’s been a crazy year,” acknowledged Miller, whose goal was his first in nine games with the Heat. “It’s been great since I’ve been here – I’ve been treated first class. Kind of like Chicago (where Miller played from 2010-13). They talk about how you get treated like an NHL team and it’s the same here.”
The Heat (38-25-7, 83 points) and IceHogs (33-27-9, 75 points) renew hostilities on Saturday (7 p.m., AESC).
• Collin Valcourt, signed by the Heat last week after his Prince Albert Raiders were eliminated from the WHL playoffs, made his pro debut on the fourth line with Carter Bancks and Garnet Hathaway.
The most memorable play he was involved in was one he would probably rather forget – veteran tough guy Wade Brookbank hammered him with a high hit at the IceHogs’ bench in the third period, earning an elbowing penalty.
Ward, who felt Brookbank probably should have had a major penalty on what he termed a “vicious hit”, lauded Valcourt’s play.
“You’ve got to give that kid credit – he drew a couple of penalties tonight, he stuck his nose in there,” Ward said. “He’s obviously a big body, so he makes us a little thicker on the walls, which is important at this time of year. I thought he did a nice job.”
• Hathaway, another recent addition to the Heat, came to Valcourt’s defence and dropped the gloves with Brookbank, but took a couple hard shots that had him gushing blood from his nose.
It didn’t tickle, but it went a long way towards impressing his coach.
“Hathaway didn’t back down one iota,” Ward enthused. “Even when he was oozing some blood on the ice, he just kept throwing ’em.
“It’s not exactly what you think from a kid out of Brown (University). But obviously he’s pretty hard-nosed. I thought that was one of the subtle turning points of the game.”
• Left winger Morgan Klimchuk, a first-round draft pick by the Calgary Flames in 2013, was also set to play his first pro game, but he sustained a lower-body injury in practice and was unable to go. It’s unlikely he’ll play Saturday, either.
• Longtime Vancouver Canucks centre Brendan Morrison (pictured below) was in attendance as part of the Heat’s Legends of Hockey series of promotions. He signed autographs and dropped the puck during a ceremonial faceoff before the game.
Former Vancouver Canuck Brendan Morrison was accompanied by members of his home minor hockey association, Ridge Meadows, for the ceremonial opening faceoff on Friday. (John Morrow photo)