With the AHL All-Star game over, the second half push is now on for the Stockton Heat. Even though they are ranked third in the league in winning percentage, they do not hold the top spot in either the conference (Milwaukee Admirals) or division (Tucson Roadrunners). At the break, Stockton is three points from the top spot in the Pacific, six points ahead of third, and 11 points ahead of fifth place.
The Heat need to avoid Tucson in the first round, as they are winless in four contests (0-2-1-1) with four meetings left. Their most likely match up would be the Colorado Eagles, which Stockton has won four of six, including three of four in Loveland, with two more home dates scheduled for mid-March.
Currently Ontario occupies the last playoff position in the West, two points ahead of Bakersfield who has a game in hand. The Heat have a 3-4 record against the Reign, losing three of four on home ice. They have five games left against each other, three of those held in Toyota Arena in Southern California. If Bakersfield sneaks into the mix, the Heat have five wins in eight meetings, with four more games left.
First half “Finest Awards”
What is a first half recap without handing out some hardware. Below I provide the winners of the first annual Finest Awards. Ballots were sent out and only one person replied (me). All votes were counted and verified by Mrs. Finest.
Offensive Player of the Half: Glenn Gawdin (1 vote)
Gawdin’s 40 points (15-25) is two more than his totals from last season with 28 games remaining in the regular season. It ranks him tied for seventh in the AHL with at least two games in hand from the other four. His game has shown vast improvement from last season in that he is looking at more than just one option as he skates up the ice. Last season he would dump the puck from center ice into the right half-board and either chase it or hope his winger would out-battle the defense for the puck. This season, besides skating the puck into the zone more, he is looking at all options for the cleanest entry. Named an AHL All-Star, look for Gawdin to lead the Heat to a long Calder Cup playoff run before becoming 3C for the Flames next season.
Honorable mentions: Alan Quine, Buddy Robinson
Robinson leads the team in goals with 16, while Quine tops the assists lists with 26. Ironically, Robinson and Quine have been centered by Gawdin for the past dozen or so games. Deemed the second line (the line of Byron Froese, Austin Czarnik, and Justin Kirkland is considered the top line), this trio easily is the top point producing line for the Heat.
Defensive Player of the Half: Zac Leslie (1 vote)
In 35 games, Leslie’s 23 points (4-19) have him leading all Heat defensemen in points (seventh on the team). He already has a new career high in assists, tied his career high in points, and is two goals away from setting a new personal high for lamp lighters. He is also a career best +7 to date. He is usually bottom pair, recently paired with freshman Corey Schueneman. He also stepped in top pairing with Rob Hamilton when Brandon Davidson was called up. Besides being on the Penalty Kill, he quarterbacks Power Play 2.
Honorable mentions: Brandon Davidson, Corey Schueneman
Davidson brings a calm experience to the back end. The Alternate Captain is rarely out of position. He moves people away from the net, allowing his netminder a clear view if the shot and tying up opponents from getting a cheap rebound goal. He is interactive with referees and linesmen, trying to work them for that next call. Coach Cail MacLean has teamed Davidson with younger players all season. He was teamed originally with Andrew Nielsen which led him to have to play a more cautious game to protect Nielsen. Now partnering with a solid defensemen in Rob Hamilton, his game is a little more aggressive.
Schueneman has quickly moved up the list of my favorite defensemen. Paired with Leslie for most of his time, he likes to shoot (49 shots – second amongst Heat defensemen) and jump into the play, as reflected in his 11 assists, slotting him third in blueliners.
Rookie Player of the Half: Luke Philp (1 vote)
After being held off the score sheet for the first ten games, Philp exploded for two goals and assist on Nov. 11. Since then, he is tied for second on the team in goals, and leads all Heat rookies with 23 points. Pointless in his last five games, this nine-day breaks comes at a good time for him to find his scoring touch again. Recently on an all-rookie line with Adam Ruzicka and Eetu Tuulola, this line is struggling to find the back of the net. I expect this line to be broken up come Feb. 1 (the next Heat game) by moving Philp with Froese and Czarnik and having Kirkland drive the rookie line.
First Half Play of the Season: Justin Kirkland’s last minute goal to beat San Jose Barracuda (1 vote)
On Nov. 16, the Heat came into the game against San Jose, having dropped three of their previous four games. They had lost 5-2 the night before to Tucson and needed a win at home prior to leaving for a season-high five game road trip to end the month. This was also a ticket-promo game for Stockton, as season ticket holders were allowed to bring as many friends and family to the game for free (for the record Mrs. Finest and I brought 11 people to the game). The Heat jumped out to a quick lead as Ryan Lomberg buried a shot just over a minute into the game, giving the 4,114 in attendance a reason to cheer. That lead lasted until the midway mark of the first, when Artyom Zagidulin coughed up the lead by allowing two goals in a span of 74 seconds. That score stayed until the third period when Philp tied it up at the 9-minute mark. The game had an overtime feel to it until Philp took a penalty with just under three minutes left. Zagidulin stopped six shots on that power play to keep the score knotted at two. The Heat had one last rush as Lomberg sprung Justin Kirkland on a partial breakaway. A rising laser grazed the top bar before hitting nothing but net for the game winner with 17 seconds left. For the remainder of the game the fans stood and cheered on the Heat. Ring of Fire never sounded so good as we exited the Arena. It spurred a 4-1 road trip that solidified second place in the division. That was the first of four games of the season where a goal was scored in the final minute of play to either win or send a game to overtime. The Heat are 2-0-2 in those contests.
There you have my first half awards. Since most (any) ballots were never returned, this is your chance to cast your votes. I look forward to your comments either in the comments section of in person at Bottlescrew Bill’s located at 140 10th St SW on Feb. 6 starting at 5:00 p.m., before the Flames Nashville game. I am sure Special Guest Skylardog and Freethe Flame will have their opinions ready. We will be there after the game as well discussing all things Flames and Heat.
If you reside in the Vancouver area, come make your point to me and Special Guest Off the Wall on Sat., Feb. 8 at Red Racer Taphouse located at 871 Beatty Street starting at 5:00 p.m. before the Flames Canucks game. Post-game wrap to be determined.