Rivermen roll over Heat

If the Peoria Rivermen seemed like a motivated group during their 5-1 blowout win over the Abbotsford Heat on Tuesday, it's because the game represented a much-anticipated homecoming for a significant segment of their squad.

Heat forward Jon Rheault gets sandwiched between Adam Cracknell (19) and Tyler Shattock (26) of the Peoria Rivermen.

Heat forward Jon Rheault gets sandwiched between Adam Cracknell (19) and Tyler Shattock (26) of the Peoria Rivermen.

If the Peoria Rivermen seemed like a motivated group during their 5-1 blowout win over the Abbotsford Heat on Tuesday, it’s because the game represented a much-anticipated homecoming for a significant segment of their squad.

Starting at the top, Rivermen head coach Jared Bednar served as an assistant to Heat bench boss Jim Playfair last season.

Brett Sonne, a second-year centre who scored a goal during Peoria’s decisive second-period outburst, hails from Maple Ridge.

Rivermen forward Andrew Carroll played 13 games for the Heat earlier this season as an ECHL call-up.

And then there was Rivermen captain Dean Arsene, an Abbotsford native who was playing pro hockey in his hometown for the first time.

It figured that the Rivermen would be primed to put on a show, and that’s exactly how it played out before 2,576 fans at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.

“I felt like a rookie again, in terms of being anxious before the game,” chuckled Arsene, a veteran of 10 pro seasons who estimated he had 30 to 40 friends and family members at the game.

“I kind of felt like that in the first period, and then I calmed down in the second and played like I normally do. But it was definitely a thrill for me.”

The vibe at the far end of the hallway was somewhat less celebratory. The Heat held a lengthy closed-door meeting afterward.

“We had a lot of guys that let the team down tonight, starting with myself,” said Heat captain Quintin Laing, one of five Abbotsford players – along with Greg Nemisz, Lance Bouma, Chris Breen and Matt Pelech – who were on the ice for all three of Peoria’s even-strength goals and finished with an unsightly -3 rating.

“You can pin it on us tonight. It all comes down to effort, and the effort wasn’t there. That was the rightful score tonight.”

The Heat’s performance in the first period offered few hints at the blowout to come.

The Rivermen did score on their first shot of the game – a one-timer by T.J. Hensick off a centering feed from Nikita Nikitin at the 4:06 mark of the first. But otherwise, the Heat did a reasonable job establishing their forecheck, and leveled the score on a goal by Gaelan Patterson.

In the second period, the wheels fell off.

The Rivermen have been one of the AHL’s elite teams this season, and they came in on a rare three-game losing streak that they were eager to shake. They got after the Heat in the middle frame, and produced a three-goal outburst in a span of two minutes, 50 seconds.

Heat goalie Leland Irving, rock-solid for most of the first half of the season, got the hook for the second time in four games. Goals by Sonne and Graham Mink 22 seconds apart spelled the end of his night.

The Rivermen welcomed his replacement, J.P. Lamoureux, with a quick power play strike courtesy of Nicholas Drazenovic at the 14:32 mark.

Nikitin rounded out the scoring with a power play goal at 8:54 of the third.

Over the previous four games, the Heat had claimed seven of a possible eight points by out-working the opposition. The Rivermen turned that dynamic around, particularly in the second period.

“We got back to doing things harder and with more authority,” Bednar said. “Early in the first period, I felt we were sitting back and letting Abbotsford take it to us. They had their forecheck cooking, and we had a whole bunch of turnovers.

“We managed the puck better early in the second period, started skating through the neutral zone, getting pucks deep and getting after them a little bit.”

Bednar said he’s enjoying his first season as an AHL head coach, and why shouldn’t he be? Tuesday’s win vaulted Peoria back into first place in the West Division at 26-13-3. The Heat, meanwhile, slid to sixth in the North Division with a 19-18-6 record.

“I had a lot of mixed feelings coming back to town,” Bednar said. “I really enjoyed being part of this organization, and living here in Abbotsford.”

ICE CHIPS:

• Sunday’s game between the Heat and Toronto Marlies, televised nationwide on CBC, drew an average audience of 166,000, peaking at 258,000.

• The Heat and Rivermen renew hostilities on Wednesday evening at 7 p.m.

• Wednesday’s game marks the end of a 10-game homestand for the Heat, who hit the road for a Friday-Sunday set against the Manitoba Moose. The Sunday game will be televised on CBC (10 a.m. Pacific time).