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.
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.
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.
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.
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.