Last spring, after the Abbotsford Heat missed the playoffs, Greg Nemisz might not have known what to do with himself.
Lengthy post-season runs had been a way of life for the versatile forward, who was part of one of the greatest teams in Canadian junior hockey history prior to turning pro – his Windsor Spitfires won back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009 and 2010.
On Friday, Nemisz was immersed in the pressure-cooker of the playoffs once again, and he made himself right at home. He scored twice, including the game-winner, to lead the Heat to a 6-2 road win over the Milwaukee Admirals.
Abbotsford leads the best-of-five set 1-0, and Game 2 goes Sunday at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center.
“You always want to be in the playoffs,” Nemisz noted afterward. “Last year was definitely a tough year, not making it after some long runs in junior. It just feels good to be playing some meaningful hockey again.”
The Heat’s red-hot top line of Krys Kolanos, Paul Byron and Dustin Sylvester got the visitors off to a great start. Sylvester opened the scoring at 3:33 of the first period, with Byron and Kolanos picking up the assists.
But Milwaukee rallied to take a lead into the first intermission. Just 1:27 after Sylvester’s goal, Mark Van Guilder beat Heat goalie Danny Taylor with a wrist shot from the top of the right circle that squeaked between Taylor’s arm and his torso. Later in the frame, Jani Lajunen fired a shot from a similar spot that eluded Taylor to make it 2-1.
The second period, though, was all Abby – they out-shot the Admirals 12-5 in the middle stanza and scored three goals.
The Heat were helped along by the fact Milwaukee handed them five power-play opportunities – three of which came courtesy of minor penalties to Admirals captain Scott Ford.
Nemisz capitalized on the man advantage at the 2:50 mark to knot the score, and he got the go-ahead goal at even strength at 13:01, jamming home a rebound off Akim Aliu’s initial shot.
Less than two minutes later, Kolanos notched another power-play marker to stake the Heat to a two-goal lead.
In the third period, goals by Jon Rheault and Kolanos (into an empty net) rounded out the scoring.
Heat head coach Troy Ward said his team’s performance was simply a continuation of the way they played to end the regular season, when they went 8-0-1 over their last nine games.
“I thought we had a lot of good elements to our game,” Ward said. “We had some energy to us. When we had chances to be a skill team, we showed some good skill.”
The Kolanos-Byron-Sylvester unit finished the regular season on a tear, combining for 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists) in eight games together.
Friday’s game was more of the same – the trio generated three goals, and Kolanos (two goals, two assists) led the way.
“I thought they skated the game really well,” Ward analyzed. “They really got some good looks offensively with the puck.”
The Heat’s special teams were exceptional on Friday – while the power play went 2-for-5, the penalty killers kept Milwaukee’s fifth-ranked power play off the board, snuffing all five of their man-advantage chances.
Ward had an interesting decision to make in picking a starting goalie for Game 1, as Leland Irving is higher on the organizational depth chart, but Taylor has played better of late.
The Heat bench boss ended up tapping Taylor, and he started slowly but finished strong.
“A couple pucks got by him in the first that he probably wants back,” noted Ward, who said he hasn’t decided which keeper he’s going with in Game 2. “But you know what, I thought it was a slow-paced game that was tough for a goalie to get into.
“The good thing for Danny was, we had such a good push in the second, it let him calm his nerves down. We didn’t let them get a lot of chances, and I thought as the game wore on, Danny found his groove.”
Heat winger Jon Rheault gets around Milwaukee defenceman Teemu Laakso during Friday’s opening game of the playoffs. (Milwaukee Admirals photo)