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Photo Credit: Mrs Finest

The Heat push to the playoffs – 11 games to go

Last week was a good one for the Stockton Heat but it ended on a sour note. They welcomed Michael Stone (on a conditioning stint) for some much-needed defensive help, albeit for what may be only five games.

Dating back to last weekend, they took two out of three games against San Diego, a team they are chasing in the standings, and then laid the wood to Bakersfield, the hottest team in the AHL, on Friday. On Sunday, they took a step back when they allowed the San Jose Barracuda to score two goals in 22 seconds at 18:33 and 18:55 of the third period to knot the score at four before losing in a shootout.

Even though Jon Gillies did not have his best game on Wednesday (.852 SV% / 5.01 GAA), the Heat found a way to outscore the San Diego Gulls 7-5 to gain two much-needed points. On Friday, he returned to his recent self with a 36-save performance (.973 SV% / 1.00 GAA) in beating the red-hot Bakersfield Condors 4-1. He had the Barracuda beat until the final 93 seconds when he reverted back to his old self. He is 7-3-0-1 over his last 11 games with a .919 SV% and 2.63 GAA.

Gillies’ improved positioning

On Wednesday Michael Stone picked up two secondary assists, had three shots, and was a +4. He was teamed up with Rinat Valiev on the top pair for both games. On Friday, he played a solid game by blocking shots, quarterbacking the top power play unit, and did not make mistakes. Sunday saw his first penalty.

I hope that besides getting into NHL shape, he is teaching some valuable lessons to the young Heat defensive core. It would benefit the Heat if Stone was here through next weekend’s set of games against Tucson. That would give him a total of five games, 11 practice and mentoring days, and assist the young Heat team in gaining critical points. So far, Stockton has earned five points with four more on the line. [ed. note – This was written before he was brought back up, so, uh… sorry, Heat.]

Valiev has steadily improved his game throughout the year, most notably since his return from Calgary. Even though he did not suit up for a game, sometimes getting the call-up can boost a player’s mindset. He is playing with more confidence than earlier this year. His game reminds me of Tyler Wotherspoon: a defensive-minded player who can contribute some offense. Originally thought as the “throw in” to the Brett Kulak / Matt Taormina deal, he is clearly the better of the two players acquired in that trade. Taormina has been hurt and played in only 28 games, contributing only four points (0-4) and is a -8. In contrast, Valiev has gone about his business while ponying up 19 points (3-16) and a +9.

Valiev with Stone

Adam Ollas-Mattsson has had a steady, bounce-back year. Limited to 14 games last year, AOM leads the team with a +21 and added 15 points (5-10) while playing all but one game for the Heat. While he has been passed by Valiev in my opinion, he is still a very solid second pairing defender. His play should garner him a two-way contract next year.

Juuso Valimaki has played 16 games with the Heat, racking up 12 points (2-10) and a +8. He is logging a ton of ice time playing in all situations while gaining valuable experience. There are times he plays like a veteran, like the top shelf beauty he scored against San Jose in February. There are also those moments where he is clearly a rookie, like last week trying to thread the needle between three defenders and Sunday taking a cross-checking penalty in the final minutes that allowed San Jose to tie up the game (and eventually win in a shootout). In my opinion, he would be best served to stay with the Heat until mathematically eliminated to gain as much ice time as possible.

Over these past two games, Kerby Rychel increased his team lead in goals to 23. He is tied for 18th in the AHL in goals while averaging 0.78 points per game. He sits third on the Heat in total points. Since a five-game scoreless streak earlier in February, he has posted seven points in his last eight games.

Rychel’s goal off the top bar

On Wednesday, Ryan Lomberg scored his team-leading fourth shorthanded goal. While his 21 points don’t scream out at you (10-11), there is more to his game than one can read in a boxscore. He is an agitator and revels in getting under an opponent’s skin. He is one of the fastest players on the team and uses his speed during the PK. He blocks shots, he buzzes the net, and is a good 200’ player.

Dillon Dube continues to produce for the Heat, netting goals in all three games this week. He is fourth on the team in scoring with 37 points (14-23) in only 31 games. He still gets moved off the puck some and tries to make that impossible cross-ice pass once or twice a game, but his mistakes are declining every game. Like Valimaki, he should stay in Stockton for as long as possible.

I had a whole take on Spencer Foo written up before Sunday’s game about him being forgettable. Then he goes out on Sunday and racks up three points (1-2). But that only changes the numbers I had already written. While he leads the team with 138 shots, his 32 points (15-17) are very pedestrian. His -12 is tied for team worst. There are games when I don’t remember him being on the ice. He is losing puck battles in the corners and is easily pushed off the puck. He has declined from last year where he finished with 39 points (20-19) in 62 games and scored twice in four games for the Flames.

Puck off the post

The Heat have closed to within a point of fifth place Tucson, who they host next weekend for two games, and eight points out of a playoff spot. Both second place San Jose (68 points) and third place San Diego (66) have tripped up a bit over the past 10 games or so, and it is possible for either or both of them to slide behind a charging Colorado, who have won six in a row and are only two points out of third.

The Heat have 11 games left on their schedule to claw their way into postseason. It is not impossible, as San Jose earned the final spot last year by winning their final six games. If the Heat continue with their recent physical play and remain disciplined, they have the tools to rip off six or more in a row. Stockton is 3-1-0-1 in March and play the next four at Stockton Arena against Tucson and Iowa. A quick Southern California road trip to San Diego and last place Ontario rounds out the month.

They need to win at least four and gain points in five of those six games to jump into the race, but they cannot give points away, like Sunday’s debacle.

  • everton fc

    I continue to be impressed with what you report on Valiev. Could be a nice depth defender – and he’s still young.

    Foo was never projected to be anything but a 3rd/4th line wing, at best. He may be no more than that, at the AHL level. Rychel seems destined, as well, for a career in the “A”.

    “On Wednesday, Ryan Lomberg scored his team-leading fourth shorthanded goal. While his 21 points don’t scream out at you (10-11), there is more to his game than one can read in a boxscore. He is an agitator and revels in getting under an opponent’s skin. He is one of the fastest players on the team and uses his speed during the PK. He blocks shots, he buzzes the net, and is a good 200’ player.” – I like Lomberg. I like him the same way, and for the same reasons I’ve always like Hathaway. I will not give up on this kid, and still think he’d add value, as an extra forward, up in Calgary. I feel the same way about Quine.

    • Jumping Jack Flash

      I think Lomberg is a perfect player to call up for the playoffs. He hits everything, and won’t back down from anyone. I would play him against Kane if there is a SJ series. Teams would hate to play against him.

    • Stockton's Finest

      They are as good as the defense in front of them. Jon Gillies has played further out over the last month or so and his rebound control is better. But 2 goals in 22 seconds in the dying minutes of a game you controlled all game is depressing.

        • SGRietzey

          Short of a stellar training camp where he forces their hand to be the backup, I’d imagine they put him through waivers and bury him, or cut bait and package in an offseason trade. There’s always the risk of a waiver claim, but it’s not like where the Leafs tried to sneak both McIlhinney and Pickard through earlier this season. Gillies likely is what he is at this point – neither a strong AHL starter nor reliable NHL backup, so I doubt a ton of teams would be chomping at the bit for his services.

          This is also cognizant of the fact that the Flames likely make at least one goaltending acquisition this summer (an established or high potential starter, or a strong 1B, depending on how they view Rittich post-playoffs), and could also feasibly draft a goalie this summer (3 years since Parsons was drafted). McDonald may be out of the system by the time free agency hits unless he’s managed to play himself onto the Heat; only management seems to know why Parsons is stuck on the bench but he hasn’t shown well either. That leaves Schneider as the only other goalie in the system. Between the draft and whatever Treliving does with the big club, both would only serve to either push Gillies back down the depth chart, or limit any upward potential unless they have the appetite to take a massive gamble on a Rittich/Gillies tandem next year.

  • cjc

    Thanks for the update SF.

    Dube is looking pretty special. The only 20 year-olds to score at that clip in the AHL over the last 20 years are Logan Couture, Ryan Strome and Derick Brassard. This is a list of recent 20 year olds that Dube has outscored:

    Kyle Palmieri, Jack Roslovic, David Krejci, Dylan Strome, JT Miller, Claude Giroux, Kris Versteeg, Bobby Ryan, Artem Anisimov, Kasperi Kapanen, Mikael Granlund, Nazem Kadri, Jason Zucker, Sean Coutourier, Tyler Toffoli.

  • SydScout

    I think back to a few years ago when all we knew about the farm were boxscores, simple stats and the odd Flames take on what is happening with the kids (papering over any cracks). Love your work SF, added heaps to my knowledge of the Flames system.

    Any chance you may be wavering on Gillies and he is visually improving or has he just seen a run of luck in keeping the puck out of the net?

    • Stockton's Finest

      Let’s see what he does for the rest of the year. I am still inclined to move on from him, but if he reels off wins and .925+ SV% and a GAA below 2.50 then we can re-evaluate.

      • Beer League Coach

        I am undecided about Gillies. I loved him when he was in NCAA and cooled off about him after he turned pro. I hope he is getting back to his top form now that his hip surgery is a couple years behind him.
        Going back to the San Jose game and the goal that tied it up. SJ goal empty so it is 4 skaters vs 6 for the Heat. Per the AHL web site the Heat fwds were Lazar and Gawdin. Both have the reputation of being good face off men. Gawden as around 56% last year in jr. Who took that face off? I did not see any highlights but assume that SJ won the draw cleanly and a couple crisp passes later it was in the net. Hard to fault the G and the other 3 skaters when the C loses the draw. They were oh so close to a regulation time W and saw it all disappear over one lost face off.

    • Speed Kills

      What… Are you saying you don’t miss the Corsi Stats defining the farm teams players without ever watching them play? Blindly judging everyone based upon box scores and advanced analytics at an AHL level? Ya, I don’t miss it either… Thank you SF for the Eyes, Ears and Feet on the ground back there in Stockton. With more time, I can only see your insights/write ups getting stronger and more refined… You truly are FN’s diamond in the rough for the reports on the Heat. I raise a glass to you & Mrs Finest for your Time, Commitment, Passion, Observations and Opinions for all of us up here on FN for our Jr. Flames… Thank You…

  • Cheeky

    Cheers for the latest update SF, I’m hoping for some Stockton playoffs too (hopefully we don’t raid the team too much). What is Graovac like? He’s big but does he play big and does he drive his line or beneficiary of it? Cheers…