With a nod to acclaimed filmmaker Oliver Stone, “Natural Born Killers” would make a good working title for a documentary on the Abbotsford Heat’s 2011-12 campaign to this point.
The Heat have been lights-out on the penalty kill, snuffing 21 of 22 opposition power-play chances through five games this season.
On Friday evening, the PK proved particularly pivotal, as a massive second-period defensive stand sparked the Heat to a 2-1 shootout victory on home ice over the Milwaukee Admirals.
With Heat centre Paul Byron already having been assessed a five-minute major penalty for boarding and a game misconduct, defenceman Brendan Mikkelson picked up a minor for roughing to put Abby at a five-on-three disadvantage for a full two minutes.
The Heat, backstopped by goalie Leland Irving, put on a shot-blocking show to erase both infractions and keep the score level at 1-1. They went on to wrap up the victory with goals from Ben Walter and Greg Nemisz in the shootout.
“We take great pride in what we’re doing out there (on the penalty kill), whether it’s three-on-five or four-on-five,” Heat head coach Troy Ward noted afterward. “I thought it was the most critical point in the game, at that particular time, for us. It’s something we seem to rally around.”
Abbotsford improved to 4-1-0, tied with the Oklahoma City Barons for tops in the AHL’s West Division. They handed Midwest Division-leading Milwaukee (3-0-1) its first loss.
Heat defenceman T.J. Brodie is off to a terrific start to the season, and the sophomore blueliner opened the scoring at 6:21 of the first. After exchanging a series of passes with Byron and Joe Piskula high in the offensive zone, Brodie sniped top corner on Admirals goalie Jeremy Smith.
Milwaukee’s Ryan Thang drew his team even on a sequence that changed the complexion of the game. Thang, carrying the puck on a two-on-one break, elected to keep, and he picked the top corner over Irving’s blocker at 6:34 of the second.
But as Thang began to raise his arms in celebration while still moving at high speed, Heat centre Byron steered him into the end boards head-first. Thang stayed down for a couple of minutes, but was able to leave the ice on his own strength. He did not return, and no further update on his status was available post-game.
Byron was ejected, and may find himself a candidate for supplementary discipline from the league. The Heat did not make him available for comment afterward, but Ward said Byron told him he didn’t know the puck was in the net.
“He heard two posts, and he was just following through at that point,” Ward said. “Paul felt bad. He’s a class kid, and he felt bad about the situation. You just hope for the best – that the Milwaukee player is going to be okay.
“We’ll just let the league handle it.”
Ward’s “let the league handle it” refrain was echoed by Milwaukee bench boss Kirk Muller, though he felt his player was in a vulnerable position on the hit.
“It’s up to the people that decide, but I don’t think Thanger had an opportunity to protect himself after the goal,” Muller said.
In the scoreless third period, the shot clock showed the Heat with a 10-2 edge. But precious few of those were of the high-quality variety, as any semblance of offensive flow evaporated in the face of tight-checking defence from both teams.
The Heat had the best scoring chance of overtime, but Walter’s deflection off a centering pass from Guillaume Desbiens went off the post.
Walter supplied the highlight of the shootout, though, fooling Smith with a big fake before slipping a cheeky backhand between his legs. Nemisz notched the winner with a high glove-side wrist shot.
Irving stopped four of five Milwaukee shooters, with Juuso Puustinen – a Calgary Flames fifth-round draft pick back in 2006 – the lone Admiral to solve him.
The Heat led the AHL with 11 shootout wins in 2010-11, and they built on that success in their first skills competition of the new season.
Irving pointed out that all four of the Heat’s shooters could have easily scored – Jon Rheault and Carter Bancks also had Smith at their mercy, but couldn’t elevate the puck enough.
“The boys definitely contributed,” Irving noted. “When you’ve got shooters like that coming down, it makes my job a little easier.”
Friday’s game was a memorable one for James Martin – the 20-year-old rookie blueliner made his pro debut, drawing into the lineup for Chris Breen. It’s been a heady couple of months for the Winnipeg native, who helped the Kootenay Ice to the WHL title last season, then earned a two-way contract with the Flames after turning heads at the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton in September.
Martin was quietly effective on Friday, playing alongside veteran Brendan Mikkelson. Afterward, he was sporting a gash on the bridge of his nose – he sustained the dent during a third-period fight with Milwaukee’s Michael Latta.
“I probably broke my nose four times last year,” he said with a wry grin. “As soon as you get punched in the visor, it kind of hits you in the nose and you’re done.
“I was a little nervous at the beginning. You kind of think back to what your game is and try to do that – focus on the process, not the outcome.”
• The Heat and Admirals won’t wait long to renew hostilities – they lock horns on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
• 3,193 fans took in Friday’s game at the AESC.
• The Heat’s 95.5 per cent penalty kill efficiency is third-best in the AHL – the Toronto Marlies (16-for-16) and the Worcester Sharks (14-for-14) have yet to surrender a power-play goal.
• Ward made a trio of lineup changes, inserting Martin, Bancks and John Armstrong for Breen, Ryan Howse and Logan MacMillan. It was Bancks’s season debut, after missing the first four games with an upper-body injury. He began on the fourth line, and took some third-period shifts on Byron’s line with Nemisz and Dustin Sylvester.
“He’s such an integral part of our team for such a young player,” Ward said of Bancks. “It was good, most importantly for all of us, just to feel him on the bench. There’s a sense of urgency, a sense of energy, that helps other people move along through the game.”
• Muller, who played 19 NHL seasons with six different teams, is making his professional head coaching debut this year with the Admirals. He had served as an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens for the previous five seasons.
“This has been a great experience for me,” said Muller, who won a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1993. “The young generation really relates to video, and they want much more information than, say, the generation of guys I played with. So you have to put more time in and work with them to get the same result.”