It was a record-setting opening month for the Stockton Heat, as they finished October with a 6-1-0-1 record which puts them in a tie for the top spot in the Pacific Division with the Ontario Reign with 13 points and fourth overall in the league.
For the first time in Heat history (or any Calgary AHL affiliate), the team has started the year with five road wins, with a pair of wins in Colorado and Bakersfield along with a victory in San Diego. Stockton notched their lone home win against the Gulls, while going 0-1-0-1 against the Condors, including an 11-round shootout loss (and some bad refereeing that allowed a Bakersfield high stick goal).
The team has been well balanced in scoring. Byron Froese (4-4), Brandon Davidson (2-6), and Glenn Gawdin (2-6) pace the team each with eight points. Stockton has six players in the top 40 in the league with seven or more points. Out of the 23 players who have suited up for the Heat so far this year, 14 players have four or more points, with 19 players registering at least a point. Those still searching for their initial point include Martin Pospisil (six games played), Luke Philp (six games), Alex Gallant (two games), and Jake Christiansen (two games). Buddy Robinson leads the team with seven goals, good for fourth in the league, with Froese, Ryan Lomberg, and Eetu Tuulola tied for second on the team with four lamp lighters. The Heat are a perfect 6-0-0-0 when Robinson scores a goal. Heading into November, the team has a +10 goal differential.
The back end has greatly improved over last year’s matador defense. This squad has allowed 206 shots in eight games, an average of just under 26 shots a game. In comparison, last year’s group allowed over 33 shots a game. Davidson and Andrew Nielsen are taking up residence as the top pair. Davidson is the more offensive-minded one of this duo and quarterbacks Power Play 1 while still covering his defensive duties. If a blueliner goes down in Calgary, he will be the call-up. Nielsen has greatly improved his defensive play from last season, when he appeared uninterested. He is more engaged and assertive in giving directions to other players, while focusing on moving opposing players away from the crease, finishing his checks, and making the safe play when moving the puck out of the zone. They have nine points and are a combined +5 in the young season. The Russian two-some of Alexander Yelesin and Rinat Valiev have been a defensive-minded middle pair. While only registering three points combined, they are +7 together. Yelesin has the lone goal between the two, which came in the first game. Four players have appeared on the bottom pair, most frequently Zac Leslie and Rob Hamilton. Leslie has five points (2-3) and tied with Dillon Dube and Valiev with a +5. Christiansen and Corey Schueneman have filled in for two games each when Leslie or Hamilton were out of the lineup.
In net, Artyom Zagidulin leads the team with five wins, good for second in the league for wins. His 3.24 GAA and .884 SV% are skewed by his four goals on 11 shots in just over 15 minutes in his second home start. Take away that game and his numbers would be 2.60 GAA with a .904 SV%. He has not allowed more than three goals in his other five starts. Jon Gillies has been rock solid. He is 1-0-0-1 after missing the first two weeks with an injury. His 1.44 GAA ranks him fourth in the league and his .932 SV% slots him 15th in that category. The way these two are playing, I would not be surprised to see Tyler Parsons sharing the net with Nick Schneider in Kansas City after he is back from his week-to-week injury.
The biggest improvement so far is with special teams. The power play ranks fifth with a 25% conversion (eight goals on 32 opportunities) while allowing one short-handed goal against. Lomberg and Tuulola lead the team with two PP goals. Stockton is tied for sixth in Penalty Kill with 86.6%, only allowing five goals in 38 attempts and netting two short-handed tallies, one each from Robinson and Dube.
Head Coach Cail MacLean is pushing all of the right buttons. He has kept the top line of Lomberg, Froese, and Tuulola intact from the first game. He has kept Gawdin and Phillips together from last season. That duo has recorded 15 points between them. Pairing the two Russian defensemen together to take advantage of their unique communication is insightful and has paid off so far. He is mixing experience and youth together, something he did not do much of last season. MacLean seems to have put the blender away to allow chemistry to be built in the lines and pairs.
- So far, this team playing a passive-aggressive style of hockey. They are aggressive in the penalty kill and in the defensive zone. The forwards come back to clog the slot and block a lot of shots from the point. The defense tends to retreat into its own zone instead of jumping up for a 50/50 puck battle in the neutral zone and leaving their goalie exposed to odd-man rushes.
- This year’s group tries to thread the needle up the middle of the ice for a breaking player. It has worked a few times, but more often than not, it is picked off by the opposing team. Despite the home run pass, the overall puck movement this season has been better. Players converging on loose pucks and shorter passes have helped maintain control.
- I see more players in front of the net than last season. Justin Kirkland, Froese, Phillips, Robinson, and Lomberg regularly occupy space in front of the opposing net looking for loose pucks.
- The Heat still pass the biscuit too much for my liking. With the increased presence in front of the net, greasy, garbage goals count just as much as those highlight reel ones. Fire the puck and let the rebounds happen.
- Phillips, all 155 pounds of him, has been more physical than last season. I saw him finish at least three checks on Friday when the opposing player looked back to see who rocked him. He is digging for pucks in the corner and not afraid to park his massive 5’6” frame in front of the blue paint.
- Gawdin looks like he has gained 10 pounds of muscle and grew another three inches. He is surveying the ice more on the breakouts, looking for more options instead of just dumping the puck out of the zone.
- Adam Ruzicka has started to figure it out. Held pointless since the first game, he registered two assists in his last contest. He has been paired with Robinson for most of the time.
- Lomberg has changed his focus from fighting to agitating. He chirps the opposing players a lot, while smiling, but maintains control. He is concentrating more on his game, using his speed and vision to propel the top line. He still needs to work to reduce his PIMs (he is second on the team with 12). He is playing on both special teams. I would not be surprised to see him in Calgary at some point this season.
While October can be called the “Bakersfield Encounter”, facing the Condors 4 times in a 5-game stretch, November can be named the “Tucson Two-Step”, wrapping a two-game road trip in between Roadrunner visits on Nov. 2 and Nov 15. Just like in October, San Diego is wedged in the middle of this series, this time in Stockton. The Heat are on the road (7 games) more than at home (5 games) in November, trying to extend their season opening 5-game road winning streak, including their longest stretch of the year away from Stockton: a 5-game, 4-city roadie with stops in Bakersfield, San Diego, Ontario, and Colorado to close out the month.