During the prolonged offensive drought the Abbotsford Heat are weathering, Dustin Sylvester might have been the poster boy.
The Heat’s reservoir of goals largely dried up when the calendar flipped to December, and Sylvester was one of many whose production slowed to a drip over the past month and a half.
Over the course of 16 games, the Heat’s reigning rookie of the year mustered just one goal and one assist – both registered in the same game – and he came into Wednesday night’s tilt with the Hamilton Bulldogs on an 11-game pointless streak.
He shook his scoring slump in satisfying fashion at the 12:55 mark of the first period, cashing in a slick power-play feed from Ben Walter by picking the top corner on Hamilton goalie Cedrick Desjardins from close range.
It was the lone goal the hosts would manage in regulation, but they were able to grind out a 2-1 shootout win over the Montreal Canadiens affiliate.
“Obviously it feels good to get that monkey off my back,” Sylvester said with a wry grin afterward. “It was a great play by Walter to get the puck to me in the middle. I kind of fanned on it a bit but it was a little bit of a change-up so it might have fooled him.”
Sylvester’s confidence-boosting tally helped the Heat (19-12-7) secure back-to-back wins for the first time since Nov. 23-24. They were coming off a 3-1 triumph over the Bulldogs (13-20-5) on Tuesday.
“I thought over the last month or so, there’s been a lot of games where we deserved a better fate,” Heat head coach Troy Ward asserted. “But the makeup of our team in terms of finishing doesn’t always lend itself that way, so we have to play these really tight games.
“I didn’t think we played exceptionally well either night (vs. Hamilton), but well enough to win these particular two games. Give our guys a lot of credit – I was happy for them.”
When it was all said and done, 2-1 seemed an appropriate final score in a duel between the AHL’s two lowest-scoring teams. The Bulldogs, who average a league-worst 2.11 goals per game, are the only team looking up at the Heat’s offensive output (2.26).
After Sylvester’s marker, the Heat nursed the lead into the third period before the Bulldogs finally broke through. Philippe Lefebvre did the honours, driving to the net on the rush and chopping the rebound off Alexander Avtsin’s initial shot past Heat goalie Danny Taylor.
Overtime solved nothing, and in the shootout, the Heat appeared the have the victory well in hand after their first two shooters – Max Reinhart and Walter – scored, and Taylor stymied the first three Bulldog attempts.
But with five chances to clinch the win with a goal or a save, the Heat came up short – Krys Kolanos, Sylvester and Greg Nemisz were turned aside by Desjardins, while Nathan Beaulieu and Abbotsford native Mark Isherwood scored on Taylor to extend the breakaway contest.
But in the sixth round, Taylor stoned Daultan Leveille and Tyler Ruegsegger flicked a shot between Desjardins’s pads to seal the victory.
Ruegsegger has stepped up in a big way of late – he’s notched the game-winner in each of the last three Heat victories.
“He’s one of those guys who’s been a surprise this year,” said Taylor, who made 28 saves and has won four of his last five starts. “You look at training camp and he was probably one of our best players, just with his heart and his hard work. He’s just continued that throughout the year. He’s probably one of our most improved players – just through his will and determination he’s been a great player for us.”
• Up next, the Heat host the Milwaukee Admirals on Saturday (7 p.m.) and Sunday (4 p.m.) at the AESC. Abbotsford swept Milwaukee in the first round of last year’s Calder Cup playoffs, but the two teams have yet to face each other this season.
“They’re really good in transition,” Ward said. “The one thing I’ve liked about Milwaukee through my years in the league is, I always find that they make small-area plays and move the puck very well. They definitely play a puck-possession game, and I’m looking forward to this match-up.”
• With the NHL regular season opening on Saturday, the Heat can expect an influx of players later in the week as their NHL parent Calgary Flames settle on their roster. Ward said the shuffling of players presents another mental challenge.
“You’d hope to say that a guy who comes down this weekend is raring to go and playing at an NHL pace based on the camp,” he said. “But a lot of times, again, we’re going to go back to the let-down of that (being cut). Then you’ve got to pick them up when they get here and give them a little love, and hopefully get some good use out of those players. It’s a tough spot for those young men.”
Heat forward Tyler Ruegsegger celebrates after scoring the game-winner in the shootout. (Clint Trahan / Abbotsford Heat photo)