The Abbotsford Heat received a major influx of talent from the Calgary Flames over the past week, but heading into Friday’s home date with the Lake Erie Monsters, Troy Ward was in the business of tempering expectations.
The veteran bench boss has seen it too many times at the AHL level – a team gets a bunch of players down from the NHL parent club, and suddenly the rest of the guys get all deferential, waiting for the high-profile newcomers to drive the bus.
The Heat, though, managed to steer clear of that trap, turning in their most dominant stretch of hockey all season en route to a 4-2 victory at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
The newcomers, make no mistake, were terrific. Ben Street, Blair Jones and Roman Horak, all recently returned from Calgary, gave the team unprecedented depth up front, and defenceman Derek Smith proved to be both a minutes-muncher and a dynamic offensive threat.
But incumbents like Ben Hanowski, Paul Byron and Chad Billins also excelled, as the hosts overcame a slow start to out-shoot the Monsters 25-4 over a stretch beginning midway through the first period and extending to the end of the second.
“We had really good push out of all the lines,” said Ward, who suggested that the club’s depth at forward on Friday was the best it’s been in his three-plus seasons with the club.
“With Smith and Street, it was like two grown men out there, compared to what we looked like a week ago against Milwaukee at home.”
The Monsters owned the first 12 minutes of the game, out-shooting the Heat 8-3 and generating several good looks at Heat goalie Reto Berra, but the Swiss keeper kept them at bay.
Street got things going offensively for Abbotsford, benefitting from some good work behind the net by Max Reinhart to find himself alone in front of Monsters goalie Sami Aitokallio with the puck on his stick. Aitokallio stopped Street’s initial shot, but the Coquitlam native tapped the rebound between his pads at 14:44 of the opening frame.
The Monsters levelled the score at 1:09 of the second on a power play, as Joey Hishon took a breakaway pass from Andrew Agozzino and roofed a backhander on Berra.
But the balance of the frame was all Heat.
Carter Bancks restored the hosts’ lead just over four minutes later, as he knocked the rebound off Hanowski’s initial shot out of mid-air and into the net.
Later in the frame, on a Heat power play, Greg Nemisz whipped a sweet backhand pass across the goalmouth to Corban Knight, who fended off a Monsters defender and chipped the puck past Aitokallio.
The Heat out-shot the Monsters 14-3 in the middle frame, after finishing the first on an 11-1 surge.
The Monsters opened the third with a purpose, and captain Bryan Lerg drew his team back to within a goal just 1:01 into the frame, ripping a top-corner wrist shot past Berra from the slot.
But Billins put the nail in the Monsters’ coffin, hammering home a howitzer from the point on the power play to make it 4-2.
“Early, they were really taking it to us,” noted Street, who registered five shots on goal and was named first star of the game. “We made a couple adjustments, and that turned the game in our favour a little bit.”
Berra turned aside 22 of 24 shots to pick up his fourth win in seven starts. The 26-year-old has made a tremendous transition to the North American game, boasting a 2.28 goals against average and a .922 save percentage.
“I feel really good,” he said. “I felt really good in (Flames) camp too, and when they sent me down from Calgary, I said, ‘I want to be positive, keep working and give every practice my best.’ That’s what I do, and if you work hard, it’s coming back to you like that. I’m happy with the start.”
• The Heat (4-3-1) and Monsters (3-4-0) renew hostilities on Saturday at the AESC (7 p.m. start).