Enter team captain Colin Stuart.
Stuart scored twice to lead the Utica Comets to a 3-1 win over the Abbotsford Heat on Saturday in American Hockey League action.
Stuart now has 15 goals on the year and is tied for third on the team despite scoring just twice in the previous 15 games.
"We challenged our leaders to bring a better game tonight, and (Stuart) was one of the guys who stepped up," said Comets' head coach Travis Green. "He's been good for us all year. You expect your captain to make plays and step up at the right time. You need all your best players this time of the year and it was good to see him do that."
The Comets had their four-game winning streak snapped Friday by the Heat, but moved to within eight points of a Western Conference playoff berth with the bounce-back victory.
"I didn't like the way we skated last night and the way we competed in certain areas of the ice," said Green. "The guys responded well tonight. These are desperate times for our team and we played like it tonight."
Stuart, who signed with the Comets' NHL-affiliate Vancouver Canucks during the summer, played in Abbotsford during the Heat's inaugural season in 2009-'10. He's now registered six points in six games against the Heat this year.
"It's still neat coming here," said Stuart. "And not just the arena, but the city itself. It's interesting to see how things have changed around town. And obviously I was here in the inaugural season so it was pretty special too."
Brandon DeFazio also scored for the Comets for his third goal in four games. Alex Friesen had two assists for Utica (27-27-7), while Joacim Eriksson made 38 saves in the win.
"(Eriksson) was good the whole game," said Green. "I like him last night and really liked him for the last three months. He's been real solid for us. He had a tough start to the year but he's starting to develop."
Eriksson gave the Abbotsford offence fits Saturday, making several key stops.
"We keyed on getting the puck to the net but obviously we didn't take away the guy's eyes as well as we should have," said Heat defenceman Chad Billins. "They're big bodies back there and they box out very well. We've got to get some more bodies to the front of the net. And also he's a good goalie, so you've got to give him credit too."
Ben Street scored the only goal for the Heat and Olivier Roy stopped 31 shots for Abbotsford (34-21-7), which has just one win in its last nine games.
The Heat actually had the best opportunities to open the scoring, getting four power plays in the first period, but had nothing to show for it, including just one shot through 10 minutes.
"We had four straight power plays, and we didn't generate anything off of that," said Heat head coach Troy Ward. "We didn't gain some momentum, we didn't put ourselves in a position physically or mentally to get some emotion or get some charge out of those power plays. I thought that was one of the biggest differences in the game."
Stuart mirrored that idea.
"We got into a little bit of penalty trouble in the first period," said Stuart. "We just kept battling back. We'd kill off a penalty and gain back a little bit more momentum and build on it. They kept coming at us and we weathered the storm when we needed to and controlled the game when we needed to as well."
The Comets finally opened the scoring at 8:47 of the second period. Yann Sauve's long shot was kicked out by Roy right to DeFazio down low and he made no mistake in beating Roy stick side for his 12th of the year.
The Heat had some opportunities to get on the board. Corey Locke forced a turnover behind the net and centred for Max Reinhart, but Eriksson stopped him and made it look easy as well.
While Locke has 14 assists with the Heat this season, he still has not scored in 18 games.
"It's frustrating," said Locke. "I've been getting looks but can't find a way to get the puck behind that goal-line. It cost a goal today. I stayed out to try and score, extending a shift, and they go back and score that second goal. That's unacceptable."
Stuart made it 2-0 at 15:25. Friesen made a perfect pass off the boards, around a Heat defender, to Stuart and he beat Roy blocker side.
The Comets' captain got his second of the game at 3:05 of the third. He skated to the left faceoff dot and wired a shot short side on the Heat netminder, putting the visitors up 3-0.
The Heat had a two-man advantage with eight minutes to go in the third and finally beat Eriksson. Street one-timed Locke's pass from the slot, blowing it by the Swedish netminder's glove for his 23rd of the year.Suggest a correction