The Stockton Heat and San Jose Barracuda came into Saturday’s game tied in points and needing some help from Tucson. If the Roadrunners beat the San Diego Gulls in regulation, the winner of this game would secure the fourth and final spot in the Calder Cup Playoffs. Two shy of 8,300 came to the barn to cheer on the home team to attempt to push the Heat to the Promised Land.
Even though this was not an official playoff game, it had the feel of one. Play was fast but tight in a scoreless first period, with both teams having their chances but not finding the back of the net. San Jose finally broke through in the second when a blocker save by Jon Gillies was kicked in the slot and the rebound put back behind him. The Barracuda struck again four minutes later when a pass from behind the net found a wide-open Alexander True in the slot who beat Gillies high side glove for his second of the night. The Heat finally broke through San Jose goalie Antoine Bibeau with just over three minutes left when Brett Findlay skated down the left side and found pay dirt to cut the lead to one.
The third period was played tighter than the first two. San Jose was playing aggressive neutral zone defense while trying to extend their lead. Stockton was trying everything they could to get that tying goal. When the Tucson – San Diego in game score was flashed on the screen with about eight minutes left (at that time it was 2-0 Tucson), both teams knew that the winner of this game would most likely get that last spot. The Heat continued to push, pulling Gillies with about 90 seconds left, but could not find that elusive second tally. The season ended with a 2-1 loss.
With 11 games left in the season, I wrote a post outlining what the Heat needed to do to get into the playoffs. They needed 14 points out of 22 points. In the end, if they had secured those 14 points, this article would be completely different. Here are some reasons I think they missed.
- Rasmus Andersson’s promotion. This is not to blame Andersson for the ails of the team. It is to show the impact of his absence on the team and what he brings to the table. At the time of Andersson’s call up (with 11 games remaining), he was the unofficial leader of this team. He was vocal, he was directing traffic on the ice, he was in everyone’s ear. Andersson and Tyler Wotherspoon were the core of the defense. When he left, there was a sense of “what do we do now?” Wotherspoon could only do as much as he could with what he had to work with. See next bullet for more detail.
- Defense in shambles. Right after Andersson’s call up, the Heat had a two game set against the Manitoba Moose. In the first of those two games, both Cody Goloubef and Dalton Prout got hurt in the same period. The Heat played most of the first period with only four defensemen and finished the game with only five after Goloubef returned. Both of them would spend time on the scratched list for the next week. This moved Oleg Yevenko from press box to top pairing. Oliver Kylington was teamed with Kayle Doetzel, who was called up from Kansas City, and the bottom pair was Josh Healey and Colby Robak. Then Kylington was called up, which led to another defensemen on an ATO being signed. I don’t even remember his name. [Editor’s Note: It was Cliff Watson.]
- Goalie swap. Right after that Manitoba trip, Calgary decided they wanted to see more of Gillies and returned David Rittich back to Stockton. That move did not pan out well. Gillies was in a groove with the Heat when he took the trek north. Rittich returned to a less than stellar defense and flopped. He went 2-4-0 in his six games. Granted his defense did not help, but there were definitely shots he needed to stop.
- Coach Ryan Huska’s refusal to play his back up goalie. When Rittich was fighting through his troubles, Huska continued to trot out his embattled net minder. He had an option: go to the back up that had compiled a 4-1-0 record with a 1.55 GAA, a .949 save percentage, and who had not allowed more than two goals in any game he played. I am talking about Ryan Faragher. What is worse in my mind is, not only he did not get a start after his last win (a 6-2 victory against the Cleveland Monsters on Mar. 11), he was a healthy scratch for the remainder of the year. Between his last start and the end of the year, the Heat went 5-8-0-1.
- Spencer Foo’s promotion. Right after Rittich’s first game back, a 6-0 drubbing against the last place Cleveland Monsters on Mar. 28, Calgary recalled Spencer Foo. At the time Foo was the hottest player for Stockton, taking his 20 goals with him. The Heat had eight games remaining, with a three game Texas road trip staring them in the face.
The Heat enter the off-season on a disappointing note with the playoffs so close. Next year will bring back some familiar faces along with some new blood in pursuit of the Calder Cup. I will have my off-season recommendations for signings in my next post coming later this week.
On a personal note, this season was fun for both Mrs. Finest and me. Writing for Flames Nation allowed us to look at the game differently. Keying on certain players, noticing things like players in front of the net, player’s movements away from the puck, crisp passes (and excessive cross-ice passing), and highlight reel goals help us get more involved throughout the season. Noticing Gillies’ issues with the high side and watching Kylington make ill-advised passes made us appreciate the sweet glove saves and sniper shots to balance their games. We felt more invested in the team than is past seasons. I hope my reports provided a first-hand look inside the farm team from a fan’s perspective. I want to thank everyone at Flames Nation, especially Ari Yanover, for this opportunity and look forward to next season.