This week the Stockton Heat hosted the Tucson Roadrunners on Wednesday and the Texas Stars on Friday and Saturday. Coming off a three-point weekend with San Antonio, the Heat were in second place in the Pacific Division, looking to solidify their spot in the standings against the top team (Tucson) and the team right below them (Texas).
In a division where all teams are over .500, each point is critical, especially for a depleted Heat team.
JAN. 10: TUCSON
With the recent call-ups from Kansas City in centers Mike McMurtry and Darrin Nowick, the line combinations are still a little in flux. I believe Coach Ryan Huska is still trying to find the right chemistry (hint: line combos will change for each of the three games this week).
On Wednesday, the Heat iced the following line up:
The Heat got on the board first with a blast from the point from the Team Canada Olympic defensemen, Cody Goloubef, with helpers coming from Oliver Kylington, returning from the flu that kept him out of the San Antonio series, and Ryan Lomberg. The Heat led 1-0 after the first period.
They must have left their energy and communication in the locker room as they came out flat for the second period. Jon Gillies gave up the tying goal high side glove, even though he was pretty sharp and was controlling his rebounds for the most part.
The teams went into second intermission tied at one, but Tucson outplayed the Heat. The Roadrunners came out in the third and played an aggressive first five minutes to take control of the game. A minute into the period, a bad clearing pass got intercepted and the shooter beat Gillies stick-side high. Two minutes later, after Nowick could not locate the puck in his skates, a turnover led to Tucson’s third goal as Gillies was beat low.
Lomberg cut the lead to one with a shorthanded breakaway goal that beat the goaltender low, but that was all the Heat could muster as they pulled Gillies in the final minutes and Tucson iced the game with an empty netter.
The Heat fell 4-2 and dropped to third in the Pacific with the loss.
JAN. 12: TEXAS (GAME 1)
Tyler Parsons got his first AHL start for the Heat. Based on the play on Wednesday, Huska swapped McMurtry and Nowick. Josh Healey replaced Cody Robak, but this has happened numerous times this season.
For the first 12 minutes, Parsons looked really good, in spite of the rest of the team being outplayed. A tipped puck through traffic found the back of the net and the Heat were down 1-0. Luke Gazdic, the offensive juggernaut, received a pass from Tyler Wotherspoon and tickled the twine for his first goal of the season. Surprisingly Stockton outshot the Stars 13-12, with most of them being weak shots from the point.
Parsons kept the Heat in the game for the first half of the second. The wheels started to come off when he allowed a laser shot goal that beat him far side high. Mrs. Finest took this picture as the puck hit the back of the net.
The next goal he gave up was a total defensive breakdown and a nice backdoor pass by the Texas player to a wide open net. The Heat were outshot 13-8 (I can’t believe they had eight shots) and were badly outplayed. Play was kept in the Stockton zone where opposing players took up residence in the Heat crease. When they did have control of the puck, their outlet passes were behind players or bouncing off of sticks, leading to turnovers.
The onslaught continued in the third, when Parsons gave up three more goals in the first 10 minutes of the period. Not all of this was his fault, as the team played as if they were confused and just not fully focused in front of him.
Mrs. Finest and I did something we have NEVER done before at a hockey game: we left with 7:32 remaining in the game. As we were leaving, we did hear that Morgan Klimchuk scored a power play goal with about six minutes left. Rasmus Andersson and Hunter Shinkaruk registered points with the assists (as listed on the official score sheet). Texas scored again for a 7-2 shellacking of the Heat and dropped them to fourth in the standings.
JAN. 13: TEXAS (GAME 2)
Saturday was Military Appreciation Night and also Ryan Lomberg Bobble Head night. Lomberg was a surprising scratch, as it was not yet announced he received a call up to Calgary (actually Raleigh). With his scratch, and the unimpressive play of the past two games, it appeared Huska threw names into a hat to draw up his lines.
I listed the lines as I thought they were, but never sure what Huska is thinking.
Something happened after Friday’s game, as this team was much better than the previous two games. I think that Texas could not see the Heat as they donned their camouflage military jerseys. Austin Carroll opened the scoring with a nice feed from Nowick that beat the goalie high glove. Stockton held Texas to only three shots in the first.
Gillies was stellar in goal. He controlled rebounds, kicked pucks with purpose, got a little help from his friend the crossbar, and the team played extremely well in front of him.
This is the fourth or fifth game I can remember that the Heat went into a third period shell. Saturday they only recorded four shots on goal in the last period. Foo sealed the game with an empty netter with 19 seconds left.
COACH’S CHALK TALK
Three times a year the Heat host “Coach’s Chalk Talk” where the season ticket holders get a chance to ask questions about the team. This is the second installment of the series. This time the Heat trotted out Assistant Coach Dominic Pitts (defensive and special teams).
Last time, Mrs. Finest and I were responsible for asking five of the six questions. No such luck this go around. I was able to get the first question of the night.
SF: It appears that beside Foo and Poirier, players are allergic to the front of the net. How do you get more traffic in front of the net to create screens and record those dirty, greasy goals that teams need to be successful?
Coach Pitts: The players have to have the desire to go there, as they know it is a tough place and they will get roughed up when they are down there. We have been trying to teach the players to head for the net but for some, it is not their desire to get beat up and are not comfortable playing there.
Translation: If the players don’t want to go there, we are not going to force them down there, even if it makes our team better and harder to play against.
One question was: “how come we are not as aggressive on our penalty kill as other teams?” The answer to that one was there are times when the players need to jump in and other times we need to stay back. It all depends on what the defenders are reading from the offense.
Translation: We stay back because we don’t want to give up odd-man rushes.
Another question was about that stupid drop pass on the power play. The answer was with the drop pass, the team is trying to create separation between the defenders allowing for better shooting lanes.
Translation: We are not getting rid of the drop pass, no matter how bad it is and how much we telegraph it to the opponent.
Other questions ranged from goalies playing the puck more to shooting more to system changes with the new personnel. Answers were just words with no real meaning. Goalies will play the puck when they can, they urge more shooting, and the system will stay the same. Looking for a little insight, we learned nothing from this session. A quick exit from Brandon Kisker, the Heat’s announcer, and Coach Pitts promptly happened at 5:00 pm.
Feeling slighted since she was not called on, Mrs. Finest ran into Brandon on the Fan Deck and was able to ask a few questions.
Mrs. SF: Do Huska and the Heat have any say in who gets brought up from Kansas City to fill the spots that are vacated when players go to Calgary?
Kisker: Those decisions are made from Calgary, with very little input, if any, from the staff in Stockton. Players are evaluated and assigned based on need.
Mrs. SF: Why does it seem that Poirier is buried on the bottom lines?
Kisker: Even though Poirier has been playing well offensively, the team looks at what he does defensively as well. He tends to hang out in the neutral zone when play is in the defensive zone and waits for that pass to spring him on a breakaway chance. So since he is failing to play both sides of the ice, he gets limited time until he starts to step up defensively.
SF: I have noticed that both Tanner Glass and Adam Ollas-Mattsson have been scratched for an extended amount of games. Are they hurt?
Kisker: All I am being told is that they are not playing and are scratched.
Side note: AOM was sitting in the stands with his fiancée and his family but I have not seen Tanner Glass since November. Speculation is that Glass is hurt.
THIS WEEK’S THOUGHTS
There was not a game this week that the Heat played a complete game. This team needs to gain a killer instinct and put teams away. Wednesday against Tucson, they were up 1-0 heading into the second period, tied after two, then came out flat for the first five minutes of the third, which cost them the game. Against Texas on Friday, they were lucky to be tied after the first period, as they were thoroughly outplayed the entire game. Even in Saturday’s shutout, they played prevent defense.
With all of the new players and lines, this team needs to simplify their system and play basic hockey for a few games. They also need to stop over-passing the puck. There was a play on Friday where the Heat were on the power play and Kylington had a clear shot from the point with traffic in front. Instead of shooting, he telegraphed a pass to Goloubef, which was picked off by Texas and led to a shorthanded breakaway. Goloubef was forced to take a penalty when he dragged down the shooter from behind, preventing a shot on goal.
This team needs its experienced players to step up. Ever since Andrew Mangiapane and Marek Hrivik went up, this team has lacked leadership. Gazdic openly admitted this during his post-game interview on Friday. Whatever was said after Friday’s game worked on Saturday, but it needs to carry over to the upcoming games.
The defense, which has been the backbone of this team this year, seemed to buckle on Wednesday and Friday. Colby Robak played his worst game of the year on Wednesday. He could not clear the puck, move his man, or connect on a pass to another player. Even rock steady Andersson and Wotherspoon had their difficulties clearing the puck. The defense returned to form on Saturday, but until the offense gets comfortable with each other and starts scoring, they need to be at their best.
This team needs to start getting more chances closer in. I would say over 70% of their shots during these three games were from the point. When you have no screen in front, and the goalie has a clear view of the puck, you are not going to score much. The Heat scored two goals in each of the three games. Luckily, Gillies stood on his head and earned two points, which vaulted the Heat back into second in the Pacific. They need to generate better scoring chances.
My initial take on Parsons is he will be fine. He did not seem to be nervous when he started. He started out with good rebound control, not allowing too many second chances. There was a play where he looked behind him, which is never a good sign. Then the team decided to abandon him and it was like target practice for Texas. The first and third goal he had no chance, but I believe that the second goal got in his head, as he probably knew he should have made that save. He faced 40 shots and made some tough saves. I bet he had flashbacks of Kansas City with all the rubber he faced. I am looking forward to him starting a game this coming weekend, maybe Friday’s game, and the team playing better in front of him. With 33 games left, I expect him to start between eight and 10 games for the remainder of the year.
The Heat take the 90-minute bus ride to San Jose for a Wednesday tilt before coming home and hosting the Ontario Reign for a weekend pair, including the Teddy Bear Toss on Saturday.