Sylvester's goals help Heat edge Monsters
On a night where generating offence was a grind for the Abbotsford Heat, the smallest player on the ice came up big.
Dustin Sylvester scored twice, including the game-tying goal with 51 seconds left in regulation, setting the table for the Heat to knock off the Lake Erie Monsters 4-3 in a shootout on Saturday at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre.
The Heat were missing their top two centres – Ben Street was just down the road in Vancouver, making his NHL debut with the Calgary Flames, while Ben Walter sat out his second straight game with an undisclosed injury.
In their absence, the Heat struggled to get into the flow offensively, mustering just 20 shots in regulation and overtime.
But the diminutive (5'7") Sylvester stepped to the forefront, notching his first multi-goal game of the campaign.
"He's more consistent than a year ago," Heat head coach Troy Ward said, reflecting on the play of Sylvester, whose 11 goals are third-most on the team. "Dustin's been great. He continues to provide this organization offence, and he's become grittier.
"Obviously he's not a very big guy, but he plays with a lot of grit, and we've worked on his play without the puck. A lot of things are going very well for Dustin."
Monsters forward Gary Steffes opened the scoring with his first career AHL goal – and a pretty one, at that. On a two-on-one break, he picked the top corner over Heat goalie Barry Brust's glove.
The hosts equalized on an equally pleasing play – Sylvester and Paul Byron worked the give-and-go to perfection, with Sylvester finishing with a tap-in at 14:49 of the first.
The early portion of the second period was all Monsters – the Heat mustered just one shot on goal over the first 10 minutes of the frame. Lake Erie struck for two goals during that span, courtesy Brad Malone and Daniel Maggio.
But in the final minute of the second, Brett Olson drew the Heat back to within a goal, deflecting Joe Piskula's point shot on net and then cleaning up the ensuing rebound.
It took the Heat until the final minute of the third, with Brust on the bench, to find the equalizer. Max Reinhart took a harmless-looking half-slapper from the top of the right circle, but Sylvester reached out and got a piece of the puck with his stick to redirect it past Lake Erie goalie Calvin Pickard.
"I was fortunate enough to get a stick on it and deflect it down," Sylvester said. “When you’re down a goal and to get one late in the game like that obviously it’s a big relief.”
The Heat's league-leading penalty killers were flawless once again, snuffing four Monsters power plays. The biggest of those kills came in OT, with Piskula in the box for high sticking.
"Our penalty kill was lights-out . . . it gave us a chance to win the hockey game," Ward marvelled. "You've got to kill three-on-four, and you've got guys eating pucks, doing whatever they can to block shots."
The Heat put on a show in the shootout – Roman Horak absolutely undressed Pickard with a deke, and Krys Kolanos and Reinhart would also beat the Monsters keeper. At the other end, Brust stopped all three shooters he was required to face.
The shootout aside, it wasn't necessarily a pretty victory, but Heat forward Carter Bancks termed it "a real character win." Ward concurred.
"We just struggled with the beginning of everything – making a pass, receiving a pass, we missed a lot of pucks," Ward said. "But that's just the spot we're at. We've just got to battle through, and obviously we found a way.
"Some of the character that came out in tonight's game was similar to what happened in the first two months. It felt like the old group. We battled. We hung in there."
• The Heat (25-16-7, 57 points) and Monsters (24-17-6, 54 points) clash again on Sunday at the AESC (4 p.m. start).
• Abbotsford native David Van der Gulik was in the lineup for Lake Erie after being sent down by the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday. The 29-year-old forward, who played two games with the Avalanche during his recall, was held off the scoresheet in his hometown Saturday despite five shots on goal.
• Ward indicated Walter's injury isn't overly serious, but he's being held out as a precautionary measure.
"I think if it was the playoffs, Ben would play," Ward said. "With the number of injuries that are happening in Calgary, I just think it's in our best interests if we don't play guys that are banged up right now, because we're going to need to be healthy."
Heat goalie Barry Brust was caught behind his own net on this first-period sequence, but teammate Quintin Laing (11) bailed him out by clearing the puck out of the crease. (John Morrow photo)