It was a night of milestones for the Abbotsford Heat on Saturday evening, as they rallied for a 5-2 home win over the Charlotte Checkers.
James Martin and Robby Dee scored the first goals of their American Hockey League careers, and backup goalie Joni Ortio stopped 35 of 37 Checkers shots to earn his first AHL victory.
Carter Bancks also notched his first goal in what has been an injury-plagued campaign for the sophomore forward, and Paul Byron had an energetic three-assist outing as the Heat snapped a three-game losing streak.
The performance was a marked departure from the Heat’s subpar showing on Friday, when they absorbed a 5-0 thumping at the hands of those same Checkers.
“I just thought we played harder, period,” Heat head coach Troy Ward analyzed. “We didn’t skate this morning – we just had a meeting where we talked about our compete level. I thought last night we didn’t really compete very hard, and I felt that was the biggest difference tonight.”
In the aftermath of Friday’s debacle, Ward shuffled the deck, scratching all-star left winger Krys Kolanos and defencemen Jordan Henry and John Negrin, along with captain Quintin Laing, who sat out with an upper-body injury. Inserted in the lineup were forwards Byron and Raitis Ivanans and blueliners Martin and Brett Carson. Both Byron and Carson had been re-assigned to Abbotsford by the Calgary Flames on Friday.
Ward also tapped Ortio for just his second start of the season – Danny Taylor had started the previous 17 games – and the Finnish rookie rewarded his coach’s faith with a terrific showing.
“I’m really happy for Joni,” Ward said. “Last night and this morning, after watching the tape, we got to a point as a staff where we felt that everything considered with last night’s performances, he deserved the start. And he delivered.”
The game remained scoreless past the midway point of the second period, before the Checkers struck for a pair of quick goals late in the frame. Bobby Sanguinetti, on the power play, broke the ice at the 16:13 mark, and just over a minute later, Sean Dolan staked the guests to a 2-0 lead.
But in the final minute of the period, Heat blueliner Clay Wilson – wearing the captain’s ‘C’ in Laing’s absence – threw the puck on net from the right faceoff circle, and it found its way in through a crowd in front of Checker goalie Mike Murphy.
That marker gave the Heat a major boost heading to the intermission, and they scored four unanswered goals in the final frame.
First, it was Dee tipping home a Joe Piskula point shot at the 2:09 mark. Less than a minute later, Bancks potted his first of the season to give the Heat their first lead of the weekend. Then it was Martin’s turn at the 8:58 mark, scoring on a blast from the point.
Byron assisted on the Heat’s final three goals, including Dustin Sylvester’s empty-netter at 18:31.
“When you’re watching from the press box, you’re eager to play hockey,” noted Byron, who was a healthy scratch the previous three games with the Flames prior to his reassignment to the Heat. “I was really ready to play tonight, and it felt great.”
As for the revamped lineup, Ward said it was about finding a blue-collar crew.
“Sometimes along the way, you’ve got to be reminded that the enjoyment of this game is based on passion and internal fuel,” he said. “If you don’t have it, it’s a tough game to be successful in. If I have to motivate guys to play, it’s going to be a long season. Tonight we found 20 guys who wanted to play.
“The common goal they all shared tonight was that the puck would get to the blue (the opposing goal crease) . . . It made a difference.”
The Heat’s usually lights-out penalty kill had been lit up on Friday by the Checkers, who were successful on 3-of-6 power play chances. Abbotsford limited them to a 1-for-5 success rate on Saturday, and Ward was very pleased with the turnaround.
“We didn’t want to eat pucks last night – we wanted to win the easy way,” he said. “Tonight, we’ve got a few ice bags in there (the Heat locker room) right now. But that’s what it takes to win at this level.”
• The Heat (25-13-3-0, 53 points) are back in action on home ice early next week. They host the Chicago Wolves, the Vancouver Canucks’ farm team, in a Tuesday-Wednesday set at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. The puck drops at 7 p.m. both nights.