With NHL training camps looming, the Chicago Wolves were missing a plethora of high-end players on Friday.
But they had more than enough firepower in the person of Brett Sterling.
The veteran forward scored a natural hat trick in the first period, chasing Leland Irving from the Abbotsford Heat net and accounting for the entirety of his team’s offence in a 3-1 win at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
The Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate was without the likes of Zack Kassian, Jordan Schroeder, Andrew Ebbett, Chris Tanev and Kevin Connauton – they’re skating with the rest of the NHL club’s regulars at UBC in anticipation of training camp, which is expected to open Sunday.
The Heat, meanwhile, were missing just one player – rookie phenom Sven Baertschi, who was in Calgary skating with his future Flames teammates.
But the Wolves responded to adversity, and they were the better team on Friday.
“Usually a wounded dog hunts best,” Heat head coach Troy Ward analyzed. “I thought they were more wounded than we were, and I thought they played with a little better desperation.”
With a crowd of 6,585 looking on, the game started in promising enough fashion for the Heat. With Chicago forward Andrew Gordon sent to the box for hooking at the 3:54 mark, the hosts engineered a pretty tic-tac-toe goal. Krys Kolanos, from the left side boards, whipped a cross-ice pass to Paul Byron, and he found Ben Walter at the top of the crease for an easy tap-in.
Irving, though, was making his first start in over a month, and his game had some rust on it.
The Swan Hills, Alta. native’s last game action was Dec. 5 vs. the San Antonio Rampage. He got the hook just over five minutes into the second period of that game, and he didn’t even make it that far against the Wolves.
Sterling leveled the score on a Chicago power play at 10:17 of the first, ripping a wrist shot from the right faceoff dot that beat Irving to the glove side.
Just over two minutes later, he gave the Wolves the lead off an offensive-zone faceoff, tipping Maple Ridge native Brad Hunt’s point shot between Irving’s legs.
Sterling’s third goal was the low point of Irving’s night. The Chicago forward corralled the puck behind the net and threw it out front, where it went off the Abby keeper’s skate and into the cage.
Irving finished out the first period, but Danny Taylor led the Heat out of the tunnel to start the second.
He would stop all 20 shots he faced, but his teammates weren’t able to make any headway offensively. That was partially due to a handful of sweet saves by Wolves goalie Matt Climie, and partially due to some less-than-clinical finishing by the Heat.
Early in the second period, Ben Street had the puck come to him as he drove to the net, and he was staring at a yawning cage with Climie marooned at the far post. But under duress, Street fired the puck towards Climie’s side of the cage, and the Wolves netminder got the paddle of his stick down to keep the puck out.
Shortly thereafter, Heat forward Brett Olson one-timed a slap shot from the hashmarks, but Climie got his shoulder on Olson’s blast.
Later in the frame, Byron had another golden opportunity, with the puck on his stick at the side of the net and Climie out of position. But Byron’s shot was sub-optimal, allowing Climie to get his left toe on it.
“What’s shocking to me was, we played so well last weekend,” Ward said afterward, alluding to a pair of dominant home-ice performances vs. the Rochester Americans.
“Rochester couldn’t touch the puck. We just flowed around this rink like we owned it. We looked like a European team. We played hard and we played really talented. We had two days off this week, and I didn’t like our response, obviously.”
If the NHL players ratify the new collective bargaining agreement to officially end the lockout, it’s anticipated that NHL teams would have pre-camp physicals on Saturday and on-ice sessions on Sunday.
Ward indicated that there will be Heat players flying to Calgary on Saturday, but he declined to disclose how many and who will be making the trip.
Irving’s performance on Friday surely wasn’t what he had in mind with training camp on the horizon.
“He’s earned it (a spot at Flames camp) in terms of his career,” Ward said of Irving. “But he’s won 90-plus games in this league, and he’s had plenty of time to prepare to play, and he’s got to play better. That’s just the life of a professional.
You’re paid to play well, and when you play well, you get rewarded. He didn’t play that well.”
Heat defenceman T.J. Brodie is a lock to be recalled by the Flames, and he saw 24:44 of ice time on Friday. He said he’s pleased with what he accomplished in the AHL during the lockout.
“I didn’t play as well as I wanted to at first, but over the past month or two I’ve felt a lot better,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to improve every aspect of my game, and try to take advantage of the extra ice time I’ve been getting here. It’s been good.”
Injecting NHL training camps into the middle of the AHL season is an unfamiliar dynamic, and Heat forward Ben Walter indicated it may have been a distraction.
“I think it was probably in the back of a lot of guys’ minds,” he said. “It’s something every team has had to deal with, I’m sure, this week, and we’ve got to be better about it. We’ve got a good veteran group in there, and we needed to keep everyone’s minds focused on our games and let the rest take care of itself. I think maybe we got away from that a little bit.”
• In preparation for the anticipated training camp recalls, the Heat summoned forwards Mitch Wahl and Adam Estoclet from the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies on Friday and signed defenceman Mike Matczak, who had been with the ECHL’s Kalamazoo Wings.
• The Heat (17-11-7) and Wolves (16-12-5) clash again on Saturday at the AESC (7 p.m. start).