ABBOTSFORD, B.C. - By adding a proven sniper and subtracting an NHL-calibre goaltender, the Peoria Rivermen have found a balance that is helping to secure a playoff spot.
Goaltender Jake Allen made his seventh start since Ben Bishop was traded to Ottawa at the NHL deadline and had arguably his best performance of the year, stopping 39 shots in the Rivermen's 4-1 victory over the Abbotsford Heat on Friday night in American Hockey League action.
"It's tough to lose a guy like (Bishop), but it's win-win," said Allen. "He gets to go to the NHL and I get to play more games. I haven't got to play as much as I wanted to this year. It's been tough to find a groove. Since starting seven games in a row I've been playing well, finding my game back.
"I know it might be slow progress but it's coming."
Patrick O'Sullivan scored twice, giving him three goals and four assists since he came to the Rivermen last week on loan from the Portland Pirates.
"I've played a lot of games in my career, played a lot in the NHL, and seen a lot of things," said O'Sullivan, who also played 24 games this year for the Phoenix Coyotes. "You come to a new team you want to fit in. At this level I'm an impact player offensively. I just try to do the things I'm good at that have got me success so far."
Anthony Nigro and Adam Cracknell had a goal and an assist each for Peoria (33-26-3).
Joe Piskula had the only goal for Abbotsford (32-23-6). Leland Irving (18-11-1) stopped 24 shots in the loss.
The win catapulted the Rivermen into sixth in the Western Conference, just one point behind the fourth-place Heat.
The game began with two fights inside the opening four minutes, just 41 seconds apart and though the home team usually benefits from these extracurricular activities, it was soon clear the visitors did.
The Rivermen opened the scoring at 5:01 on a broken play. O'Sullivan tried to return the favour on a give-and-go with Nigro but the pass was blocked and came right back to him. O'Sullivan calmly chipped it past an over-committed Irving for his 12th of the season.
Peoria doubled its lead on the game's first power play. Nigro took a wristshot from the top of the right circle, and though it may have been deflected by a defender's stick, it counted as Nigro's 11th of the year at 16:44.
"We had a good first period," said O'Sullivan. "You build a two-goal lead on the road, that's something you'll take every night."
Peoria outshot Abbotsford 12-6 in the first shots were 34-16 in the Heat's favour over the final 40 minutes.
"It was a slow first period," said Allen. "It was tough for me to get into it. Our team was playing well. We buried on our chances tonight, which was very key for us. It put them on their heels."
In the final minute of the second period J.P. Testwuide was sent to the box for elbowing and the Rivermen took advantage. O'Sullivan took a feed from Cade Fairchild at the bottom of the right faceoff circle and sniped a shot through some legs with Cracknell screening in front.
Two minutes and two seconds into the third period the Heat finally broke Allen's shutout bid. Piskula's point shot skipped on the ice and over Allen's shoulder, just his second goal of the year and first since Nov. 1.
"Chris Breen fed it to me for a one-timer," said Piskula. "It was kind of a rolling puck when I got it and it knuckled and fooled the goalie a little bit. It was nice to get that."
"It's good because he could use a little boost," said Abbotsford head coach Troy Ward. "That's not his role. As soon as he starts to think he's a goal-scorer, I'm going to bench him. His job is to prevent goals and he got a goal. He's a good leader for us and he's worked hard. We'll take them when we get them."
Peoria scored on their first two power plays of the game, finishing 2-for-4, while killing off the three Abbotsford man advantages.
"I don't know if we can blame our penalty kill," said Piskula, a regular on Abbotsford's third-ranked PK. "They had some pretty good shots and some real skilled plays. We need to keep that power play off the ice."
"Our power play's been good the last couple games," said O'Sullivan. "We're going to need that if we're going to continue to win."
Carter Bancks was robbed by Allen's pad stack during a power play early in the third period. Then he stopped Akim Alieu with a wicked glove save with four minutes to go.
"Jake was good in net," said O'Sullivan. "They started to come as the game wore on, he weathered the storm."
Cracknell added an empty netter with 0.1 seconds remaining.