Hockey, much like life, is not always fair – a truth which the Abbotsford Heat discovered anew on Sunday afternoon.
The Heat turned in their most dominant performance of the season, but sustained their first loss, falling 3-2 to the Rockford IceHogs at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
The hosts peppered IceHogs goalie Alec Richards with 33 shots, while surrendering just 13 against – a franchise-low total for Rockford.
But the IceHogs capitalized on their rare scoring chances, and Richards stood tall between the pipes as Rockford salvaged a split of the two-game weekend series.
“It was a good night in a lot of ways,” Heat head coach Troy Ward mused afterward. “I thought structurally we were good, I thought we did some nice things. But I didn’t feel a lot of emotion or passion with this particular 60 minutes.”
Sunday’s game, played before 2,061 fans at the AESC, followed a similar script to the first meeting between the two teams, a 4-3 Abbotsford win on Friday. As in the home opener, the Heat allowed the visitors to race out to a two-goal lead in the first period.
Both of the IceHogs’ early goals felt a little bit like déjà vu. On each occasion, a Rockford player dug the puck out of the corner and fed it to a teammate near the right faceoff dot, who then ripped a high glove-side shot past Heat goalie Leland Irving.
On the opening goal, it was Chris DiDomenico doing the spadework to get the puck to Jeremy Morin, who bulged the twine at the 12:34 mark. In the final minute of the frame, it was Jimmy Hayes with the set-up and Brandon Pirri pulling the trigger.
Breaking down what happened to his team in those moments, Ward reached back to his childhood for a metaphor.
“I grew up on a highway called I-94, which goes from Madison, Wisconsin to St. Paul (Minnesota),” he said. “It was like I was driving down the road as a kid again. We just looked like deer in the headlights. We just stood there. We didn’t move.
“We didn’t react very well, and it was disappointing.”
Other than those two breakdowns, the Heat owned the first period, but Richards was up to the task. His best sequence started with a Brendan Mikkelson point shot – the IceHogs goalie stopped Lance Bouma’s deft deflection, then stoned Stefan Meyer on the rebound.
Mikkelson finally got the Heat on the board at 4:18 of the second, ripping a point shot on the power play through a Greg Nemisz screen and past Richards.
Early in the third period, the Heat had a golden chance to equalize, as Ben Walter was awarded a penalty shot after being hauled down on a breakaway. It marked the second consecutive game the Heat had earned a penalty shot, but as with Lance Bouma’s attempt on Friday, Richards came up with a huge stop, turning aside Walter’s blocker-side wrist shot.
“To see them in back-to-back games is pretty rare,” Richards noted later. “But I’ve got confidence one-on-one with a guy, and the pressure’s on him to try to beat me. It’s a tough play, but I made two saves, and it was a good thing for our team.”
Walter got his revenge just over a minute later. Swooping into the Rockford zone, he unleashed a wrist shot that went off the stick of IceHogs forward Brett McLean and floated over the shoulder of Richards to knot the score 2-2.
The Heat continued to press, but Rockford’s Brandon Segal struck for the game-winner against the run of play with 4:12 remaining. Brian Connelly lofted a high clearing attempt that landed in the skates of Abbotsford defenceman Clay Wilson just inside his own blue line, but he was unable to corral the bouncing puck. McLean stole it, then dropped a pass to Segal, who weaved around Wilson and Mikkelson and ripped a shot just under the crossbar.
“When you’re giving up the first two goals of a game, it’s tough,” Walter noted afterward. “At the same time, we’re 3-1, and we’re doing some good things out there. We’ve got some good players on this team, and once we get everything together, I think we’ll be a really good team in this league.”
While the Heat spent a lot of time in the Rockford zone and fired a lot of pucks at Richards, captain Quintin Laing felt his team should have made life more difficult for the goalie.
“We weren’t hard enough in the tough areas,” Laing analyzed. “I don’t think we made it as tough as we should have on him. He came up with some saves, but a lot of those saves he should make. That’s what’s kind of frustrating about tonight.”
Irving allowed three goals on 13 shots, and Ward said the challenge for the keeper is staying mentally sharp during periods of inactivity.
“If we do what we’re supposed to do defensively, this (13 shots against) is going to become pretty close to a regular,” the Heat bench boss asserted. “He’s not going to see a whole lot of shots. So it becomes more of a mental game for a goalie than it does a physical.”
• The Heat (3-1-0-0) are back in action at home next weekend, when they host the Milwaukee Admirals on Friday and Saturday. Both games begin at 7 p.m.