The Abbotsford Heat worked awfully hard on Friday evening to bust out of their collective scoring slump, mounting a 50-shot attack against the Rochester Americans.
Based on how it’s gone for them lately, the two goals they scored could be viewed a veritable offensive explosion.
It wasn’t enough, though, as the Amerks rode an opportunistic offence, excellent special teams and a sparkling 48-save performance from goalie David Leggio to a 5-2 triumph at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
The Heat carried the play for the vast majority of the evening, producing a parade of high-calibre scoring chances, but they simply couldn’t buy a goal in the first two periods.
Part of that was due to Leggio, whose body of work included several saves of the highlight-reel variety. The Rochester keeper’s best moment came midway through the middle frame, when he went left-to-right to get a pad on Ben Street’s one-timer. It was straight-up larceny – Street had been staring at a yawning cage, thanks to a lovely cross-ice feed from Krys Kolanos.
But beyond Leggio’s play, the Heat also suffered from self-inflicted wounds, struggling to finish around the net.
“It was a frustrating game to play,” Abby defenceman Steve McCarthy said afterward. “I thought we did a lot of things well. We obviously generated quite a few shots, and give their goalie credit – he played well.
“If we keep playing like that and get chances, when you’re around the net, eventually those are going to go in. I think it was a step in the right direction, and hopefully we bury some of those tomorrow.”
The two teams meet again on Saturday (7 p.m., AESC), and the Amerks (17-12-3, 37 points) will try to move into a tie with the Heat (16-10-7, 39 points) for second place in the AHL’s North Division.
Goal-scoring has been an issue for Abbotsford dating back to the start of December – they went 3-7-3 in the month, mustering just 18 goals during that span (1.38 per game).
They got an energy boost on Friday from rookie winger Sven Baertschi (pictured right), who returned to the lineup after missing 13 games with a head/neck injury. The Swiss sniper had a ton of jump in the first period – on his very first shift, he came blazing down the middle and fed Ben Walter on the right wing. Walter caught Leggio on the move and shot against the grain, but he rang the puck off the post.
Minutes later, Heat captain Quintin Laing found the puck on his stick with nothing but net in front of him, courtesy of a Carter Bancks pass. But under duress, he managed to fire it wide.
In the second period, it was more of the same, as Paul Byron and T.J. Brodie beat Leggio but not the crossbar.
Meanwhile, the Amerks struck for a pair of goals. Brian Flynn opened the scoring at 2:41 of the middle frame, tipping Mark Mancari’s point shot past Heat goalie Barry Brust on the power play.
Zemgus Girgensons made it 2-0 at the 7:02 mark with an impressive individual effort, driving to the net from a tight angle against Heat defenceman Joe Callahan and backhanding a shot over Brust’s glove.
The Heat hit their nadir offensively late in the second, when they came up empty on an extended five-on-three power play. They managed to put the puck in the net on one occasion, as Walter found a loose puck behind Leggio and jammed it in, but referee Trent Knorr had already whistled the play dead.
The Heat finally broke through early in the third, as Max Reinhart notched a shorthanded marker. Byron stole the puck at the Abby blue line and fed the puck ahead to Reinhart, and he whipped a shot between Leggio’s legs on the breakaway.
But just 33 seconds later, the Amerks restored the two-goal edge, as blueliner Nick Crawford’s wrister from the point floated in through a maze of bodies.
Rochester captain Kevin Porter made it 4-1, beating Brust five-hole after Mancari generated a turnover in the Heat zone.
The Heat, to their credit, kept on pushing, and Walter cut the lead to two, converting a feed from Brodie.
But that was as close as they would get. Roman Horak missed a glorious chance at the side of the cage with less than two minutes remaining, and Mancari finished things off with an empty-netter with 22.1 seconds left.
“We’ve just got to take the good things out of our game,” Walter reasoned. “We’ve got to learn from our mistakes, but as far as offence goes and creating chances, we probably couldn’t ask for much more than tonight. We’ve just got to bury a couple more, and I think we’ll be better in the long run.”
Heat head coach Troy Ward echoed those steady-as-she-goes sentiments.
“I was happy with our offensive output,” he said. “You can’t ask guys to score goals – that’s just got to happen. But you can ask them to get scoring chances, and we generated scoring chances, probably more than we have in a really long time.
“You’ve just got to keep throwing them out there and let them work through it. We’re at a level of hockey where mental toughness, fortitude, things like that, they make a difference. We’ve just got to stay mentally tough and stay with it. There’s no sense to panic – it’s January 4. Not a big deal.”
Leggio faced a lot of rubber, but said he didn’t mind the workload.
“It was a good amount of shots, but sometimes that puts you in the groove as a goaltender,” he said. “We did what we needed to do after a long day of travel to get a big win on the road.”
Cody Hodgson, the former Vancouver Canucks centre who was sent to the Buffalo Sabres in a surprising move at the trade deadline last spring, made a return to B.C. with the Amerks. He had a relatively quiet evening, picking up an assist on Crawford’s goal, but he’s averaging better than a point per game (five goals, 14 assists in 18 games) as he bides his time in the AHL during the NHL lockout.
“It’s a nice feeling,” Hodgson said of his return to the West Coast. “The people here have always been kind to me and I was excited to come play in front of them and tomorrow as well.”
The Amerks went 2-for-3 on the power play, knocking the Heat out of top spot in the AHL penalty killing rankings. They’re now No. 2 overall with an 88.3 per cent success rate, just a tenth of a percentage point behind the Binghamton Senators (88.4).
The Heat, meanwhile, were 0-for-5 on the man advantage.