The way Milwaukee Admirals goalie Jeremy Smith was playing on Wednesday evening, it felt like it would take a perfect shot for the Abbotsford Heat to beat him in the third period.
That’s precisely what Dustin Sylvester delivered.
On a power play midway through the final frame with the score tied 2-2, the rookie winger took a drop pass from Ben Walter and unleashed a picture-perfect wrist shot that found the top corner over Smith’s blocker.
Sylvester’s sensational snipe stood up as the game-winner as the Heat beat the Nashville Predators’ affiliate 4-2 before 3,406 fans at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
The Heat pushed the Admirals off the playoff plank in the process, winning the best-of-five first round series in three straight, marking the first sweep in franchise history.
“Walter carried it over the line, and for some reason their D backed up really far,” Sylvester said, recounting his goal. “So I carried it into the middle, a little fake, and made sure I got it on net. I didn’t even see it go in, actually. But that felt really good.”
Heat head coach Troy Ward said that it felt really good for the team, as a whole, to see Sylvester succeed in the clutch.
At 5’6″, the Red Deer, Alta. native is the shortest player on the Heat roster, with no one else within three inches of him. His diminutive stature caused teams to overlook him when he wrapped up his junior hockey career with the WHL’s Kootenay Ice in 2010, and he spent last season in the German second division with the Hamburg Freezers.
A successful season overseas led to an AHL contract with the Heat last fall, and Sylvester won the team’s rookie of the year award after posting 15 goals and 19 assists in 64 regular-season games.
“For a guy of that stature to do what he does at this level, it gives a lot of players and a lot of people in life hope,” Ward said of Sylvester, who has excelled in recent weeks on the Heat’s top line with Krys Kolanos and Paul Byron.
“He’s a money player, he’s a very, very talented guy. For him to get a big goal at a big time this year . . . I couldn’t be happier for a guy like that. He’s really been a big part of what we’ve done this year.”
With their playoff lives on the line on Wednesday, it quickly became clear that the Admirals’ survival strategy was to batter the Heat physically at every opportunity, with a particular focus on Abbotsford’s red-hot (but smallish) trio of Kolanos, Byron and Sylvester.
But the story in the early going was the visitors’ utter lack of discipline while carrying out that game plan.
Milwaukee was whistled for six of the first seven minor penalties of the game, with blueliner Jon Blum leading the Admirals’ march to the brig with a pair of boarding infractions in the first four minutes of regulation.
Blum’s first penalty came just nine seconds after the opening faceoff, and one second after it expired, Hugh Jessiman got the Heat on the board. Blueliner Clay Wilson’s point shot caromed off the end boards, and Jessiman shoveled a bad-angle backhander that went through a screen and eluded Milwaukee goalie Smith.
Early in the second period, the Heat notched their first official power-play goal on their fifth chance of the night. Kolanos, from behind the Admirals’ goal line, spotted Wilson pinching in from the point, and Wilson hammered a slap shot top-corner to make it 2-0.
The Heat had multiple chances to insert the dagger, but Smith stood on his head to keep his team in the game.
On yet another Abbotsford power play, Ben Walter slipped a slick backhand feed to Roman Horak, who was staring at a yawning cage. But Smith reached back and somehow got enough of Horak’s shot to steer it wide.
Shortly thereafter, Horak was sent in alone, but Smith stoned him with the right pad. Next, it was Walter with the puck on his stick from point-blank range, but Smith stretched to get his left toe on the puck.
At that point, the Heat held a 6-1 edge in power plays. The disparity being what it was, it was only a matter of time before the zebras found reason to send the Heat to the sin bin. Late in the second period, Wilson (slashing) and Sylvester (interference) were the culprits, and those calls opened the door for the Admirals.
With Wilson in the box, it was another Wilson – Milwaukee forward Kyle – who got the visitors on the board, firing a wrist shot from the right circle that went through Taylor’s legs. The Heat keeper appeared to be trying to steer Wilson’s shot to the corner, only to whiff on the puck, and it was surely a goal he’d love to have back.
On Sylvester’s penalty, Maple Ridge native Victor Bartley ripped a shot from the left point that found the top corner to level the score with 1:25 left in the frame.
Milwaukee’s stunning rally was rendered moot when Admirals forward Taylor Beck, from just inside his own blueline, lifted the puck over the glass for a controversial delay of game penalty. The Ads argued the puck had been deflected before going out, which wouldn’t have been an infraction.
But the call was made, and Sylvester made Milwaukee pay at 8:47 of the third.
In the final minute, the Admirals mounted a charge to tie the game, and Taylor made the best save of the night on Milwaukee sniper Chris Mueller from point-blank range.
Off the ensuing faceoff the Heat cleared the zone, and the puck bounced around in the neutral zone before ending up on Clay Wilson’s stick. He hit the empty net from the Heat blue line to seal the victory.
Wilson earned first star honours after logging 25:01 of ice time and notching two goals and an assist.
“Clay’s performance was not shocking to me or his teammates – it’s what we’ve come to expect,” Ward said.
“He’s the definition of Krys Kolanos on the defensive side at this level. They’re the same guy – it’s just that one’s a D and one’s a forward. They both enjoy the limelight, they both enjoy the pressure of making big-time plays at big times.”
“It’s a stepping stone, it’s a start,” Wilson said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’re just going to try to keep things going.”
The Heat’s next opponent depends on the outcome of Friday’s game between the Chicago Wolves and San Antonio Rampage.
The Wolves, the Vancouver Canucks’ affiliate, have battled back from a 2-0 series deficit to force a pivotal Game 5. Should third-seeded Chicago win, the Heat would play the Oklahoma City Barons, the Edmonton Oilers’ farm team. If the No. 5 Rampage prevail, Abbotsford would face the Toronto Marlies. Either way, they start on the road.
• Kolanos posted two assists on Wednesday, and leads the AHL playoff scoring race with eight points (four goals, four assists) in three games.
• Heat captain Quintin Laing sat out his second straight game with a mild concussion. Ward said Laing is day-to-day with the injury, and might have been able to play on Wednesday. But with the Heat leading the series 2-0, it was an easy decision to rest him. Wilson wore the ‘C’ in his absence.
• The Heat made one lineup change, scratching winger Akim Aliu in favour of rookie Max Reinhart, who made his AHL playoff debut.
Skating on the third line, Reinhart’s best moment came when an Admirals forward drove deep into the Heat zone and slipped a pass into the crease with Taylor out of position. But Reinhart was johnny-on-the-spot to whisk the puck out of harm’s way.
Ward didn’t spare the superlatives in evaluating the “extremely intelligent” rookie.
“He’s as bright a guy as we have in that locker room without the puck,” the Heat bench boss said of Reinhart. “He’s in another world. He’s a very smart guy, very calculated about the ice he takes.
“The organization’s got a very good player going forward.”
• The Heat honoured the Abbotsford Pilots on the jumbotron during the second period for winning the Keystone Cup, emblematic of Western Canadian junior B hockey supremacy. The Pilots clinched the title last Sunday with a 9-1 win over Thunder Bay.
Milwaukee defenceman Jonathan Blum runs Heat forward Jon Rheault from behind, picking up a boarding penalty in the process. Blum was whistled for two boarding penalties in the first four minutes of the game. (John Morrow photo)