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Big nights from Baertschi, Jones boost Heat past IceHogs
As he hits the home stretch of a trying season, Sven Baertschi suddenly has the Midas touch, but he insists there's no magic to it.
The 21-year-old left winger from Switzerland, coming off a career-high five-point outing in the Abbotsford Heat's 6-3 win over the Rockford IceHogs on Friday, notched another goal and assist on Saturday as the Heat completed a weekend sweep of the IceHogs by a 5-3 count.
Baertschi, one of the Calgary Flames' blue-chip prospects, dealt with bitter disappointment in mid-December when the Flames demoted him to Abbotsford, accompanied by a pointed critique of his two-way play from acting general manager and president of hockey operations Brian Burke.
It took him awhile to find his offensive rhythm upon joining the Heat – he mustered just two goals and two assists over his first 15 AHL games of the season.
Baertschi has been scorching hot of late, though, having racked up eight goals and 10 assists in his past 12 contests.
But pressed after Saturday's game as to whether he's made adjustments or seen his game blossom in any respect, he said it's just been a matter of staying persistent and playing to his strengths.
"I just kept playing the same way I always play and try to create some offence, and lately the puck's been going in," said Baertschi, the Flames' first-round draft choice (13th overall) in 2011. "Even if I pass, there's always something happening.
"Last night, every puck I touched, when I gave it to somebody, it went in right away. . . . I haven't had a game like that in a long time, so it was good to get that.
"For me, it's been a tough year in a lot of ways, but now I've got my confidence back and I feel like I've been playing pretty well lately. The points are just bonuses."
Heat head coach Troy Ward attributed Baertschi's surge to a pair of factors – a shift back to his natural position on the left wing, and being slotted on a line with a right-handed playmaking centre in Corban Knight.
"I think he's had a little bit more time and space, and he's been more comfortable on zone entry (as a left wing)," Ward said, noting that he tried Baertschi on the right wing because he thought he might have better offensive-zone entries there as a left-handed shot.
"When you're a smaller guy and you're agile and you're quick, you want to try to get into the offensive zone unscathed. You don't want to get banged up going in there. It's one thing to battle down low, but your zone entry time you want to be able to play fast. And he's been able to do that with Corban. Corban's a terrific passer, and I think that's helped him the most."
The Heat also got a big game out of Blair Jones, who registered a goal and two assists in his first game back after missing nine games with multiple unspecified injuries.
The veteran forward had great energy all night, and flashed some high-end skill on his first-period goal, making a spin move to the net before tucking the puck between the pads of IceHogs goalie Kent Simpson.
"I was pretty bored here when the team was on the road for a couple weeks," Jones noted with a chuckle. "It's nice to have them back here and to get back into a game was a good feeling."
After managing to salvage a victory on Friday despite being outshot 48-18, the Heat had a far better start on Saturday, carrying the play in the first period and building a 3-0 lead.
Knight, coming off a hat trick the night before, stayed white-hot and opened the scoring with a power-play goal, taking a feed from Max Reinhart (one of his three assists on the night) and snapping a shot past Simpson.
Heat defenceman Derek Smith, playing his 300th career AHL game, made it 2-0 when his wrist shot from the left point found its way in through a screen, and 33 seconds later, Jones's goal ended Simpson's night. He gave way to Jason LaBarbera after allowing three goals on four shots, marking the second straight night the IceHogs made an in-game goalie switch, having gone from LaBarbera to Simpson the night before.
The Heat were well in control, but had to sweat it out down the stretch.
Garret Ross got the IceHogs on the board late in the second period, when his sharp-angle shot went off Smith's stick and past a stunned Heat goalie Joni Ortio.
Baertschi restored the Heat's three-goal lead early in the third when he settled a bouncing puck at the top of the crease and chipped it by LaBarbera, but Rockford defencemen Adam Clendening and Stephen Johns – with his first career AHL goal – scored to cut the deficit to 4-3 midway through the final frame.
The Heat called timeout, and managed to keep the IceHogs at bay long enough for Brett Olson to score an empty-netter with 32 seconds left.
"I wasn't real patient at times tonight, and that was probably the most patient I was," Ward said, reflecting on the timeout. "It was one of those times where I just decided to tell them they're a good group of guys, and this is where you want to be. We could still be up 4-1 and not calling a timeout, but here we are. . . . Let's just relax, enjoy the moment and enjoy the pressure. This is where you find out if you're a good team or an average team."
Ortio stopped 23 of 26 Rockford shots, but he didn't look particularly sharp on any of the IceHogs' goals.
He did have one shining moment late in the second period, denying Rockford's Klas Dahlbeck with a ridiculous sprawling glove stop (pictured above) that Jones termed "one of the best saves I've ever seen."
"Ironically, it's one of those nights where you make that save, but you couldn't get the ones that were going in your glove from a couple hundred miles away," Ward joked. "But that's the way it worked out for Orts."
• The Heat (39-25-7, 85 points) sit in fifth place in the Western Conference, and are on the verge of clinching a playoff berth. Rockford (33-28-9, 75 points), meanwhile, slipped to ninth place with the loss, on the wrong side of the playoff bubble.
• Ward wasn't pleased with some of his players' shift lengths during the first two periods, calling it his "biggest concern."
"We've got a group of guys that's not happy if they sometimes go up and down the ice sheet in one particular shift two times," he said. "They've got to try it a third time, and that's where I'm a little bit concerned about our team right now. I think we have to have a little better pace to our game, and more consistency. I thought we got tired at times."
• The towering Johns (6'4", 233 pounds) was playing just his second career AHL game after making his debut Friday. The former second-round draft choice signed a two-year deal earlier this week with the Chicago Blackhawks, the IceHogs' parent club, after four years at Notre Dame of the NCAA.
• Up next for the Heat are games vs. the Oklahoma City Barons on Friday (7 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.) at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre. Those are their final regular season home games of the season.