A fast-paced affair: Wolves overcome Heat in Friday night shootout

Anton Rodin is stronger, more confident and playing with Zack Kassian. (Chris Jerina/AHL in Photos)

A constantly rampaging Zack Kassian would be at the top of most Canucks fans’ must-happen lists; they got a glimpse of just that player on Friday night. In an exciting, back and forth encounter with their Calgary Flames compatriots, the Canucks’ minor leaguers came out on top, winning 3-2 in a shoot out.

Most observers have predicted that the NHL lockout would have a positive effect on the AHL’s level of play; hockey fans got more than a glimpse of that on Friday, as both teams played tight defence, strong transition games and impressive puck movement. It was a great advertisement for how much value a fan can get for his money in Abbotsford.

Click on past the jump for notes and some data…

– As has been noted by many, Zack Kassian was a Pierre Mcguire-style monster last night. Powerful on the forecheck and on the rush, Abbotsford’s defenders had their hands fullon nearly every shift by the big winger. He scored a goal, got in a fight and set up several other chances for his teammates.

– Kassian’s second period goal was a thing to behold. After the Wolves forced a turnover in their end, Andrew Ebbet chipped the puck up in front of Kassian, who was hustling up the left wing. The Abbotsford defenceman gave Kassian an extra half-step of space, enough for him to bust through, breaking in off the wing and his powerful drive drew Abby goalie Danny Taylor off the near post, creating a hole that Kassian wired a wrist shot through.

– Another of those chances belonged to Kassian’s centre-for-the-night Ebbett, right on Taylor’s doorstep. Ebbett received great pass from the wing by Kassian, the culmination of a rush that started with an excellent strength move by Anton Rodin at the Wolves’ own blueline to spring Ebbett initially. After flying up the left wing and gaining the Heat zone, Ebbett made a nice drop pass to Kassian, who steaming up in support. Kass challenged the defenceman in front him head-on, while Ebbett sped to the top of crease; Kassian fed him the puck (through a couple sets of legs, no less) and Ebbett nearly tapped it in.

– Ebbett drew the centre-Kassian-tonight straw on Friday night. Kassian and Anton Rodin had been playing mostly with Jordan Schroeder the last two games, but the AHL-veteran rule forced Wolves coach Scott Arniel to scratch Brett Sterling, who had usually been skating with Ebbett and Darren Haydar. The new trio was threatening all night – several shifts saw extended forays into the attacking zone, something you demand from a line with so much talent. They were far-and-away Chicago’s best line on the night.

– Anton Rodin finished the night with five scoring chances, incluing three on one late-third period shift. After initially getting a nice one-timer off from the top of the slot, Rodin got the puck back on the side boards about 20 seconds later. He powered around the net, looped up to the top of the slot, where he got off a good spin-around shot. The puck came back to him seconds later as he drove to the net and he got another good whack at it, but Taylor (as he was all night) was playing big and made the stop.

– Other than Kassian’s setup, Ebbett got the Wolves’ only two chances on the powerplay, both in the second period, about 20 seconds apart. He hit the crossbar on the first, a powerful wrister from the top of the left circle.

– The Wolves’ powerplay continues to struggle. After the game, Kevin Connauton attributed it to a lack of polish and co-ordination; if that ever happens, Chicago will need to move the puck much more quickly and work harder to break down the penalty killers’ box. Abbotsford was rarely forced out of their comfort zone when they were a man down – Chicago just didn’t do much to force the Heat’s PK to compensate for their disadvantage.

– The line of Andrew Gordon, Steven Pinizzotto and Nathan Longpre also had a strong game at both ends of the ice. Longpre’s third period goal off of a rebound was fully deserved: it was his third scoring chance of the game. Gordon had four chances himself, including one that produced a rebound that was then whacked into the net by Pinizzotto’s high stick. Pinizzotto’s only (legal) chance of the game came on a 3 (nearly 4) on 1. He carried the puck the length of the ice and despite having plenty of passing options he took the puck to the net but didn’t have much of a move. Taylor made the save and numerous attempts at whack-a-mole ensued, but no one found the back of the net. Pinizzotto could have done better.

– Jordan Schroder’s line, with Billy Sweatt and Darren Haydar, had its moments. Sweatt and Schroeder both managed a pair of scoring chances, while Haydar had three. They never got burned horribly in their own end and they pushed the puck up the ice well, but they only had one or two extended forays into the offensive zone. They can do better. Schroeder is, again, very confident with the puck and showed that on Friday, so the goals and assists should come. If they don’t, they get worried. But there’s little reason to think that might happen, for now anyway.

– The only act of note from the fourth line was Taylor Matson’s lone scoring chance in the second period. Matson, a college pick by the Canucks, is playing on an AHL contract. He works hard, but his size and wheels are working against him. Alex Friesen, as noted by Jeff Angus, is making the transition to pro hockey and Arniel having played him in two out of the first five games is a glass-half-full sort of thing. The coach thinks he can do it, wiil he seize the opportunity? The other member of the fourth line, Guillaume Desbiens, did what we knew he would. He’s big and strong, throws hard hits but isn’t a great skater and probably doesn’t want the puck on his stick.

– Defensively, the Wolves had a very sound game. While the Wolves forwards buzzed away, generating 27 chances for, the defence did an excellent job of keeping Abbotsford to the outside, limiting them to 19 chances overall. Six came on Abby powerplays, including both of their goals.

– Mark Matheson had the Wolves’ only scoring chance from a defenceman, jumping up into the rush and working a nice give and go with Matson to get a shot off from the slot. He and Derek Joslin moved the puck well and played like the AHL veterans they are.

– Kevin Connauton and Chris Tanev are in the zone. Connauton has learned how to use his size and strength in his own end, a great addition to a skill set that was already high-quality offensively. Tanev has had a middling start to the season, but Friday night was his best performance of the season. He still needs work in the offensive zone, but he took care of business in his own end and was very, very steady handling the puck.

– Yann Sauve got into his first game of the year and played well in limited minutes. Paired with Swedish prospect Peter Andersson, the two didn’t take a bad step in the game. But, if either is going to progress, they need to find their coach’s confidence and get themselves more high-leverage minutes.

– Eddie Lack wasn’t tested much but was solid when he needed to be. He didn’t have much help on the PK; maybe he stops one of those shots, but both? He gave his team a chance to win, and win they did.

– This may be partly attributable to the Heat’s defensive shell, but the Wolves were excellent breaking out the puck. Having multiple NHL-quality players in the lineup has two effects: it raises the talent level of everyone present and it pushes out poor quality-players. There were plenty of crisp passes and lots of tempo-pushing. It was a fun, fast game to watch.