In the preseason, Abbotsford Heat head coach Troy Ward emphasized the importance of his youthful squad getting an offensive boost from their defencemen.
In the regular season opener, he got that in spades.
Blueliners Chad Billins and Drew MacKenzie scored one minute and 36 seconds apart in the second period on Friday, erasing a 1-0 deficit and sparking the Heat to a 5-2 victory over the Lake Erie Monsters in Cleveland.
“I think what me and Chad are going to bring to this team is offence from the blueline, which is something we lacked a little bit last year,” MacKenzie noted.
“In the first period, I think we were just trying to get our bearings and play tough defensively. In the second period, I think we got a little more confidence and snapped the puck around a little more.”
Ben Hanowski chipped in with two goals, including an empty-netter, and fellow rookie forward Josh Jooris also tallied for the Heat. Both players celebrated their first career AHL goals, while goalie Reto Berra turned aside 31 of 33 shots to pick up his first AHL win.
“He played awesome,” MacKenzie said of Berra. “He’s got a lot of confidence playing the puck, which really helps our D out, and he’s a really big guy who battles hard in there.”
The host Monsters had the better of the play in the first period, out-shooting the Heat 11-6 and taking a 1-0 lead when captain Bryan Lerg chipped a rebound past Berra on the power play.
Billins equalized at 6:54 of the second period on a Heat man-advantage opportunity, hammering home a slap shot off a feed from Corban Knight.
MacKenzie made it 2-1 shortly thereafter, taking a drop pass from Blair Jones and picking the top corner over the glove of Lake Erie goalie Sami Aittokallio.
Hanowski stretched the lead to 3-1 on another power play, finishing off a tic-tac-toe passing play with assists going to Jooris and Paul Byron.
The Monsters got a terrific start to the third period, as Brad Malone cut the Heat lead to 3-2 just 58 seconds into the frame.
They pushed hard for the equalizer, laying siege to Berra, but the Heat goalie kept them at bay for long enough for Jooris to notch an insurance marker. The rookie centre beat Aittokallio off a feed from Byron, who registered his second assist of the night.
Hanowski, with 1:05 left in the third period and Aittokallio on the bench, rounded out the scoring.
• Friday’s game contained multiple milestones for the Heat – in addition to Hanowski and Jooris’s goals and Berra’s win, Knight and Tyler Wotherspoon picked up assists for their first career AHL points.
• Monsters forward Garrett Meurs was awarded a penalty shot midway through the first period after being hauled down on a breakaway by Knight, but his backhander hit the crossbar.
• The Heat and Monsters renew hostilities on Saturday (3 p.m. Pacific time). The game can be heard on CIVL 101.7 FM or teamradio.ca.