The Heat hosted their Central Valley neighbors to the south (and Battle of Alberta AHL rival), the Bakersfield Condors, for a weekend tilt of games.
The Heat came into the weekend third in the Western Division and looking to build some momentum before heading on the road for the month of December.
Friday night game notes
The lines for Friday’s game:
I knew David Rittich would get the start, as Jon Gillies had just returned from his relief appearance in Detroit on Wednesday.
Some of these lines had me scratching my head, both positive and negative. I like the move of Emile Poirier to the second line. His play has earned him the right to be moved up. The third line of Luke Gazdic, Ryan Lomberg, and Joseph Cramarossa would be better suited for a fourth line, as this would be the enforcer line. The actual fourth line of Brett Pollock, Hunter Shinkaruk, and Tanner Glass appeared odd, as it seemed that coach Ryan Huska threw together a few leftovers to fill out the line. Lastly, Spencer Foo and Rod Pelley were scratched for the first time this year.
Stockton struck first with 6:22 gone as Morgan Klimchuk trickled one through five-hole, with Poirier and Marek Hvirik assisting on the goal. Moving Poirier to the second line was already paying dividends. Bakersfield tied it a few minutes later on a tip in front of the net to beat Rittich.
Shinkaruk scored the lone goal of the second on the power play. It was a quick rip from the slot off a faceoff. Poirier got his second apple of the night, while Oliver Kylington registered the second assist on the goal. Rittich made 18 saves in the period, as he controlled rebounds to take away second chances from the swarming Condors.
The final period was a close fought battle. Shinkaruk’s second of the night (and eventual game-winner) came on a 4-on-4 situation to put the Heat up 3-1. Cramarossa earned the lone assist on the goal. Bakersfield, however, scored a few minutes later to keep the crowd on the edge of their seats.
The Heat kept the play out of their zone for the most part until the Condors pulled their goalie with two minutes left. After an icing call, where the Heat tried to put the game away, Stockton finally gained control, skated to the offensive blue line, and it was Hrivik buring one in the back of the empty net to seal the deal.
Poirier and Garnet Hathaway got the helpers, giving Emile a three-point night.
Saturday night game notes
Saturday 6:00 pm start saw the following lines:
Again, Huska adjusted the bottom six. From my memory, he has been tinkering with those lines all season.
Changes from the night before include Foo, Rod Pelley, and Colby Robak in; Gazdic, Pollock, and Josh Healey out. Lomberg got moved back to wing, while Cramarossa got the centering call for the first time this year that I can recall.
As expected, Gillies returned to the crease. Interesting, as Huska in the past has rode Gillies in back-to-back games when he wins, but I cannot recall a time when he has done that with Rittich.
The Heat came out fast on Saturday, controlling play early. The top line set the tone with an early tally, Hathaway’s goal coming just 1:27 into the game. Kylington and Brett Findlay got the assists on Garnet’s 10th of the season.
Bakersfield tied it up on a goal that was deflected off a Heat player (maybe Kylington?) to tie it up. But five minutes later, Lomberg fired a shot from the slot that beat Bakersfield’s goalie ”where mom hides the cookies,” as Heat announcer Brandon Kisker often says. It was Lomberg’s first of the year, with assists from Glass and Rasmus Andersson. It was nice to see Ryan finally get that initial goal of the season.
Bakersfield turned up the heat starting the second period, even with a tight-checking first half of the period. The defense made some good blocks, while Gillies looked sharp. Robak got his first of the year with an absolute one-time bomb from the circle, increasing the Heat lead to 3-1. Poirier got another primary assist, with Hrivik gaining a point with the secondary assist.
The Condors scored towards the end of the period on a shot that Gillies let trickle off his glove. It was a soft goal that he should have had; just a loss of focus on his part. Even though each team scored, Bakersfield outshot the Heat 13-5 in the period – there was a lot of play on my side of the ice.
Just like the night before, the third period was a tense affair. Again the Condors came out and controlled play. But the Heat played solid defense and capitalized on their lone power play opportunity. Andrew Mangiapane tipped a shot from Cody Goloubef to make it 4-2. It was nice to actually see someone in front of the net. Findlay got the second assist on the scoring play.
Bakersfield pulled their goalie with 3:30 left in the game. After a few attempts that went awry, Klimchuk bookended weekend goals (you’ll recall he opened the scoring on Friday) with an empty netter with just over two minutes remaining. Add another point for Poirier and Tyler Wotherspoon.
On Friday, Huska mentioned in his post-game comments that he feels his team has yet to play a complete 100% game this year, and he is correct. Individuals have had standout performances, but the team as a whole has not put together all three phases to make up a complete game.
I can only comment on the home games, as I have not watched or attended games away from Stockton Arena. The closest to a complete game that I remember reading about is the 3-0 shutout win in Bakersfield in late October. In that game, the Heat took only two penalties, scored a power play goal, and Gillies recorded a 32-shot shutout. The Heat put 34 shots on net.
The defense looks really good this year. A solid top four (and even five) with Andersson and Wotherspoon as the top pairing, with Kylington and Goloubef as the middle pair. Adam Ollas-Mattsson seems to be the fifth and plays with a combo of Healey, Robak, and Oleg Yevenko. This has been the strong point of this team. Andersson, Wotherspoon, and Kylington play on the power play, rotating with the four forwards.
Andersson and Wotherspoon reunited after Andersson’s NHL recall, and played like they never missed a beat. In fact, I thought Fat-Ras played with more confidence and poise. He jumped into the play more often than before. His passes were crisper and seemed to hit the tape just in the right spot. I can’t remember a time when he was out of position.
Rittich was on his game and the reason the Heat won on Friday. The first goal was a tip in front that he had no chance on. The last goal he just got beat on a snipe. He controls the puck so well. Out of the 33 shots that did not tickle the twine, I can count on one hand the number of rebounds he game up. I know I have been a Rittich cheerleader for the past two years, but numbers don’t lie. He is now 5-1-0 with two shutouts, a 2.17 GAA, and a SV% of .931. He is sixth in GAA, fifth in the league in save percentage, and is tied for the league lead in shutouts.
Gillies played better on Saturday. This is the first game I have seen where he has controlled rebounds and did not allow that second shot when he is out of position. He faced 29 shots in the second and third periods combined. The two goals he did give up were glove side high. I do not fault the first one, but he should have had the second one. He made the tough saves and covered up for a stop of play and momentum killer for the Condors.
Like up north, Stockton has relied on stellar goaltending to win games while the offense has been opportunistic with its chances. This team needs to generate more offensive zone time to take the pressure off the defense and goalies.
I want to issue a Missing Person’s Report for Spencer Foo. After being a scratch on Friday, I expected him to come out Saturday like a bull in a china shop. But I never noticed him at all. When I mentioned his name to Mrs. Finest, she said, “More like Spencer Who. I thought he was a scratch again tonight.” He could have been, as he blended into the ice. The stat sheet says he had one shot, but I sure do not recall it.
The Heat were outshot in both games and four of the six periods. On Saturday, they only recorded five shots in each of the second and third periods. They need to generate more scoring chances.
Mrs. Finest noticed that the Heat rarely had players in front of the net. They need to generate traffic in front of the opposing goalie to create screens.
It is great to see Poirier get rewarded on the scoresheet for his hard work. He has been buried all year on the third and fourth lines. He finally got a chance to show what he can do with a top flight center and winger and took full advantage of it. He was finishing his checks, playing aggressively on both ends of the ice, and even got some power play time. He had a five-point weekend, almost doubling his point total for the year.
Shinkaruk, like Poirier, has been bottom six all year, but he is playing hard. At times this year, he seemed to be skating recklessly and without purpose. Friday, he skated like he was on a mission. He earned those two goals.
With the weekend sweep, the Heat took over second place in the Pacific. Now the Heat venture off on the road to play 13 of their next 14 away from Stockton, where they are 3-1-0-1. A successful trip would be getting 13 or more points. Anything fewer than 10 points would be considered a bad trip.
They find themselves at home for a one-game home stand on Dec. 9 against the Tucson Roadrunners after a six-game swing to Ontario, two games in Tucson, two more in Bakersfield, and San Jose.
After Dec. 9, they visit San Diego twice, Ontario twice, Tucson again for two, and San Jose on Dec. 28 as part of a SJ/Calgary doubleheader (Heat and Barracuda at 1:15 pm and Sharks and Flames at 7:30).
The Heat return for a New Year’s Eve afternoon tilt against Bakersfield, a game that Mrs. Finest and I will miss as we watch the Golden Knights take on the Maple Leafs at T-Mobile Arena.