It feels like last year since I wrote a column on the Stockton Heat.
Before I get into the details of this weekend’s games against the San Antonio Rampage, I need to catch you up with the December report.
The Heat spent 13 of 15 games (about 46% of their road schedule) on the road where they compiled a 5-5-2-1 record. They have only 16 more road games left with no trip lasting more than three games. We saw a win on New Year’s Eve, oh wait, that was the Vegas Golden Knights that won 6-3 over the Maple Leafs.
The Heat bowed to the Bakersfield Condors 3-1 on New Year’s Eve to finish off the year 16-10-2-2, good for second place in the Pacific division.
Since I last wrote, Air Canada flights from San Francisco to Calgary have taken the top two scorers from Stockton to fill those roles for the Flames. Eddie Lack, who I never saw in game action, was sent to New Jersey. And Southwest Airlines between Kansas City and Sacramento has included some oversize bags, as the Heat brought up Mason McDonald, then shipped him back; and have brought up two centers and a goalie.
As I entered Stockton Arena on Friday with the other 2,700 fans, it was time to get a firsthand look at the new Heat. Gone were Andrew Mangiapane and Marek Hrivik (do well guys, hope to see you in February as you tear it up between now and then). Joining the Heat are RHD Dalton Prout (in the trade for Eddie Lack), goalie Tyler Parsons, and centers Darren Nowick (5-9-14) and the Mavericks’ leading scorer and ECHL All-Star Mike McMurtry (15-17-32 in 30 games).
The Heat entered the game on a 0-2-1 winless streak and need to sweep, or at least get three of four points, San Antonio this past weekend. It was around this time last year the team went on a 10-game winless streak (0-9-1). Time to right this ship and not let it happen again this year.
FRIDAY, JAN. 5
With all of the changes, I was anxious to see what Coach Ryan Huska would trot out as a line up. Huska doesn’t number his lines (his words in October), so for the sake of doing his job for him, I would number them as listed.
I don’t know why Oliver Kylington was scratched. I know McMurtry was just called up, so I expect him to see action on Saturday, along with Parsons.
The game started out a bit slow. It was like the Heat were still getting familiar with each other, both on offense and defense. The Rampage struck first on a goal that Jon Gillies should have never let in. The puck was pushed into the zone. Gillies started to come out to poke-check the puck, but at the last minute decided to defend his net. He never got set and was beat -where else, but high glove side. The Heat were outshot 8-5. Stockton had some chances, but just couldn’t bury the puck.
The Heat picked it up in the second period. They ended the period with 16 shots on net, finally getting one past the San Antonio netminder at the end of the period. Hunter Shinkaruk took a backdoor feed from Nowick and put it behind the goalie to tie things up at one.
The third period was a defensive struggle. There was not much to report, as the teams spent most of the time going up and down the ice with not many shots. The best opportunity came with a few minutes left in the period when Shinkaruk tried a wraparound and Tyler Wotherspoon tried to follow it up to no avail. Gillies got better in rebound control. The game went to overtime, which has not been kind to Stockton this year.
In the five-minute overtime, the Heat had the best chance when Shinkaruk pinged the iron with about three minutes left. Emile Poirier took a slashing penalty with 1:44 left and the Heat ended the overtime on a 4v3 penalty kill, during which they did an excellent job.
Shootout time. Wait, San Antonio is shooting first? Gillies stopped the first Rampage shooter (really, trying the five hole?). Who will Huska send out first? Spencer Foo. OK, he is tied for third on the team with six goals. He had a nice move but he missed. The next SA shooter beat Gillies stick side high to go up 1-0. Next up, Rasmus Andersson. Now you know I like Fat Ras (Phat Ras… whatever), but when you have shooters on this team (Shinkaruk, Morgan Klimchuk) why trot out a defensemen? And if you wanted a defensemen, why wouldn’t you put out your top defensive goal scorer Cody Goloubef? Andersson missed. Down 1-0 heading to the third shooter for San Antonio, who beat Gillies… well, you know where he gets beat. The Heat fell 2-1 in a shootout.
SATURDAY, JAN. 6
The only lineup change from the previous night was inserting a true center, McMurtry, moving Joseph Cramarossa back to his normal wing position, and sending Brett Pollock back to sign autographs between the second and third periods.
For the second straight night, Kylington did not dress. I did not even see him during warm ups. He wasn’t in the rafter seats during the game (scratched players sit in the closed off seats above section 211 behind us). In addition, I was expecting to see Parsons in net on Saturday. With the Heat going to overtime and a shootout the night before, I was not expecting to see Gillies in net again. I would guess that Parsons would get a start next week against the Stars.
This was the polar opposite from the night before. The Heat came out fast and physical. Just over three minutes into the game, on a beautiful feed from behind the goal, Shinkaruk fed Nowick for a quick five-hole shot to put the Heat up 1-0. After the Rampage tied it up on what should have been goalie interference (and a blown call by the refs on a takedown of Ryan Lomberg on a partial break), the Heat responded. Lomberg stole a breakout pass, fed Foo for a one-time snipe to beat the goalie high-side stick. The Heat took a 2-1 lead into the dressing room.
The Heat went up 3-1 midway through the second frame, when Colby Robak found Brett Findlay cross-ice for a backdoor tap in. San Antonio struck back with a power play goal on a blast from the point that beat Gillies five-hole. One thing I can say about Gillies is he rarely gets beat five-hole. The Heat maintained their one-goal lead heading into the third.
The last frame could very well be the worst period I have witnessed in two years. The Heat went into a defensive shell and played not to lose. They were outshot 18-3 in the period. They did not have a shot on goal through the first 17 minutes of the period. To let you know how bad the ice was tilted, during the first two stoppages of play when the crew cleans the ice, there was no snow to clear in front of the San Antonio goalie. The ice was still shiny from where the Zamboni had cleaned the ice. It was that way for most of the period.
Gillies also played what was his best period we have witnessed. He controlled his rebounds, kicked with purpose, and was solely responsible for keeping the Heat in this game. He finally buckled and gave up a power play goal with just over four minutes left in the period – a goal that I blame on the defense.
Now tied, the Heat decided to start playing offense again. With an overtime record of 0-2-3, they wanted this to end in regulation. San Antonio took a hooking penalty with just over two minutes left. A minute later, a Rampage high stick led to a 53-second two-man advantage. The Heat took their timeout to settle the group and focus on the mission at hand: win in regulation.
Like the Flames would do about an hour later, it was time for their All-Star defensemen to shine. As the first penalty was expiring, Andersson fed Foo for a shot from the side of the net that got turned away. Klimchuk took the rebound and fed Andersson, who stepped into a one-time blast that beat the goalie high side for the game winner: an absolute bomb that made the water bottle jump at least a foot. Top shelf – that’s where mom hides the cookies!
Of course nothing can be easy for this team. Prout took a slashing penalty with 15 seconds to go, giving San Antonio a glimmer of hope. But some good defense and a timely save from Gillies sealed the two points, snapping a four-game winless streak.
Darrin Nowick fit in well with Klimchuk and Shinkaruk. He can dish the puck well, he can shoot, and he can hit. This line seemed to click and played like they had been together for the season. He is not as polished as Marek Hrivik, but plays a similar style of game to him. He had two points (1-1) over the weekend.
Mike McMurtry suited up for Saturday’s game and centered the third line of Poirier and Cramarossa. He played with the Texas Stars last year before signing with the Heat in July. Although not registering a point last night, he threw some really good checks and played well. He has a nice touch with the puck.
The Heat now have four lines with true centers (Findlay, Nowick, McMurtry, Pelley). Even though all of these centers range from 25 to 32, this crew will get them through the remainder of the year, or until players like Dillon Dube and Glenn Gawdin arrive.
Dalton Prout was inserted on the bottom pair with Robak while Josh Healey was teamed up with Goloubef as the middle D-pair. He performed well, not overwhelmed with the play. Just based on these two games, I would slot him as the eighth rated defensemen on the team, behind Robak and Adam Ollas-Mattsson. He is ahead of Oleg Yevenko and Kayle Doetzel, who I think is KC-bound any day now.
I am very critical of Jon Gillies, but I have to give him full credit for the three points this weekend. He still has issues (have I mentioned he gets beat high side a lot??) but he came to play. I think he knows the mistake he made on Friday not challenging that lone goal in the first. But after that goal, and as the game went on, he got better throughout the weekend. He had better control of his rebounds, he kicked pucks with purpose, and he stole the Saturday game with 17 of 18 saves in the third period. I do not lay any blame on that PP goal he allowed.
Andersson was by far the best skater on the ice during these two games. He played fast and more physical, deeper into the offensive zone, and was stellar on defense. Being named an All-Star upped his game. I had not seen as many hits from him as I did on Saturday. He is NHL ready.
Lomberg and Shinkaruk continue to supply the spark for this team. While Andersson does his thing, these two constantly hustle in to forecheck, challenge outlet passes, and get under the opponent’s skin. Both of these guys get in front of the net and create havoc.
Lomberg has matured from last year, as he picks his spot when to drop the gloves. He energizes the team and crowd more with his play. The move to center at the beginning of the year gave him a different perspective, but since moving back to wing, he has picked up where he left off last year.
With Shinkaruk, it appears that now that Garnet Hathaway is gone, he has realized this is his time to lead. Since he has been moved back on a line with Klimchuk, his game has been cleaner. His passes are crisper, his skating is more controlled, and he is always around the net.
The second place Heat continue their six-game home stand with a Wednesday game against the division-leading Tucson Roadrunners and then host the Texas Stars for a pair over the weekend. Currently all teams in the Pacific are over .500, so every point is critical in the race for the Calder Cup Playoffs.