Sports

Heat stayin' alive with win over Griffins

Heat goalie Leland Irving showcases his flexibility while making a save on Friday evening at the AESC. - John Morrow
Heat goalie Leland Irving showcases his flexibility while making a save on Friday evening at the AESC.
— image credit: John Morrow

The Abbotsford Heat's 4-2 victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins on Friday evening can be added to the growing mountain of evidence that Ales Kotalik's impact on this scoring-challenged team is transformative.

The numbers tell the tale.

• In 19 games with Kotalik, the Heat average 2.95 goals per game. In 55 games without him, they score just 2.20 per contest.

• The Heat have mustered four goals or more on 18 occasions this season. Exactly half of those have come with Kotalik in the lineup.

• Over their four previous outings – all losses – the Heat outshot their opponents by double-digit margins in each contest, but only totaled five goals. That Kotalik was in the midst of a six-game stint with the NHL parent Calgary Flames during the scoring drought is hardly a coincidence.

Kotalik was re-assigned to Abbotsford on Thursday afternoon, and he lit the fuse against the Griffins on Friday.

At 14:49 of the first period, on an Abbotsford power play, the 32-year-old forward from the Czech Republic took a lovely cross-ice feed from Carter Bancks and hammered home a one-timed slap shot that tested the tensile strength of the twine.

It was a big-league snipe, befitting a player with a $3-million-per-year contract and four 20-goal NHL campaigns on his resumé, and the Heat were off to the races from there.

Ryan MacMurchy, Quintin Laing and Matt Keith scored in the second period to stake the hosts to a 4-0 lead before 4,175 spectators at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. The Griffins managed a pair of goals in the third period, courtesy Brent Raedeke and Joakim Andersson, but it was far too little, too late.

"Kotalik brought a lot of energy back in our group," Heat head coach Jim Playfair acknowledged. "I think we get confidence when we see Kotes.

"He's an NHL player who's giving us really honest minutes down here."

Kotalik, who registered seven shots on goal, conceded he wasn't thrilled to be sent to the AHL for the second time this season.

"It wasn't an easy situation again for me," he said. "But I'm coming down here to try to be a good player, and help in that (playoff) push."

Friday's victory was a huge one for the Heat, who are battling tooth and nail to stay in the playoff race. Abbotsford (35-29-4-6, 80 points) moved into a tie with Grand Rapids (35-30-2-8) for fifth in the North Division.

Both teams are five points out of the final playoff slot, which is currently occupied by the Peoria Rivermen – the West Division's fifth-place finisher can cross over and claim the North's fourth and final berth.

Defenceman T.J. Brodie also had a big game for the Heat, notching two assists to move into a tie with Keith for the team scoring lead. Both players have 34 points, though Brodie has played seven fewer games. That's heady stuff for a 20-year-old rookie.

"I've been happy with T.J. Brodie for a while now," Playfair said. "He's been our best defenceman for probably five or six games in a row.

"I think he's done a really good job for us."

Heat goalie Leland Irving, returning to action after missing five games with a groin injury, had a relatively easy time of it as his teammates out-shot Grand Rapids 38-20. His counterpart in the Griffins crease, Thomas McCollum, allowed four goals on 22 shots before giving way to backup Jordan Pearce at the start of the third period.

Justin Dowling, who signed an amateur tryout contract with the Heat last week after wrapping up his junior career with the WHL's Swift Current Broncos, picked up his first point as a pro on Friday – an assist on Keith's goal.

The Heat and Griffins renew hostilities on Saturday (7 p.m., AESC).

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