(photo: Jack Lima Photography)
There are some games in a season that feature a true litmus of a team’s character and identity. For the Stockton Heat, Saturday night’s contest against the Bay Area rival San Jose Barracuda demonstrated a depth of fortitude and perseverance that gave them a shootout win on home ice.
“The nice part about tonight is that we didn’t cave,” reflected Head Coach Ryan Huska on the win. “We were down 3-2 after giving up that two-goal lead and we fought back and found a way to tie it.”
The Heat and Barracuda have both suffered as middling teams in the early part of the season. Coming in to Saturday night’s game the Heat had a record of 4-5-0-2, the Barracuda sitting at a similar 5-6-0-2. Neither team seemed to know who they were at home. It took a road trip for both teams to find a groove in the systems they play. Stockton, after a six game losing streak, and a string of bad goalie luck, pulled it together on the road, picking up 3 points in Texas, against the San Antonio Rampage (SOL 4-5) and Texas Stars (W 5-3) and came home to deliver a 4-0 shutout to the visiting San Diego Gulls last Wednesday night.
Heat offense is beginning to deliver for the team as Freddie Hamilton, Drew Shore, Turner Elson, Kenny Agostino, and Emile Poirier have all turned it up a notch and Markus Granlund continues to show his offensive talents. Hamilton netted his 50th career AHL goal during the game against the Gulls and Elson delivered two shorthanded goals on the road in Texas. Stockton got an additional spark with the return of forward Derek Grant, who spent nine games up with the Calgary Flames, Grant promptly scored upon returning, collecting two goals with the helpers coming from Elson in the tilt versus the Gulls. Poirier collected his 50th AHL point in the same game and Granlund is delivering multipoint games, picking up two goals in San Antonio and two assists in Texas.
Each one factored heavily in the win against the Barracuda on Saturday night. Granlund buzzed the Barracuda net all night and collected his fifth goal of the season. Kenny Agostino, who sitting on the verge of hitting 50 career AHL points, hadn’t found the back of the net yet this season, along with Poirier. The tide turned for both, and by the end of Saturday night’s game, each had a goal and an assist.
“It felt good to get that first one out of the way,” Agostino said, almost relieved during the post game interviews. “Obviously it took a little longer than I would have liked to get it, but you get one and then they all start to fall. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
The Heat defense has been something of an issue as of late, with inconsistent effort and victimization at the blueline being a factor. It is something of a double-edged sword to have your defense be offensively minded and willing to jump into plays, but the chance of odd man rushes and scoring opportunities for the opposing team is greatly increased. The Heat have been a bit sluggish in their transition game and haven’t had the time nor the space to make solid defensive plays.
Jakub Nakladal and Pat Sieloff have helped steady the blueline over the last few games. Nakladal’s experience on defense coupled with his aggressive shot from the point pairs well with the younger, physically tough Sieloff, who isn’t afraid to get into the corners and battle hard for the puck. Sieloff has struggled in the past with injury and hasn’t played a full season yet, but he is still young and is showing a bit more spark to his game. The two have shown some success stymieing the odd man rushes and trapping the first forward in, giving the goaltender some time to read the shots.
Meanwhile Flames defenseman Ladislav Smid is now on a conditioning stint with the Heat and will play for at least a few games. He has only played four games up with the big club and spent the majority of the 2014-2015 season sidelined with injury, keeping him out for 51 games. An interesting fact and one that may have possibly helped the Flames organization glaring goalie problem is that Smid was part of the trade that sent goaltender Laurent Brossoit to the Edmonton Oilers. Brossoit is a talented young netminder who has been steadily improving his already sharp skills between the pipes in the AHL with the OKC Barons last season and now with the Bakersfield Condors. One has to wonder what could have happened had the Flames kept Brossoit in their stable.
The Flames Goalie Drama continues….
The woes of the Calgary Flames organization surrounding goaltenders this season could be a muli-part drama. Uncertainty in goal at the top with Jonas Hiller‘s injury and timetable for return has trickled down to the AHL level where injuries have also haunted the Heat. Jon Gillies made an awkward save and has been out since early November, this following a recovery from concussion symptoms sustained earlier this year. According to the November 16th TSN #MondayMustRead, Frank Seravalli states:
“Flames goaltending prospect Jon Gillies is dealing with a lingering hip issue that may require surgery. Canucks prospect Thatcher Demko underwent surgery for a similar hip ailment last season and he’s rebounded at Boston College for seven shutouts in 10 games this year. Calgary acquired goalie Kevin Poulin from Tampa Bay as minor-league insurance in exchange for “future considerations.”
In comes Kevin Poulin, a goaltender who hadn’t seen much action other than being a benchwarmer since being with the Bridgeport Soundtigers in 2014. After a couple rough starts Poulin was beginning to settle in to the groove of backstopping the Heat. He showed flexibility and an unwavering calm as the Barracuda peppered him with shots and heavy traffic. After stopping a whopping 50 shots that carried into the shootout, Poulin went down after stopping Barracuda forward Bryan Lerg. As he tried to get back up his right leg buckled underneath him and he was subsequently helped off the ice. Poulin made a great recovery from knee surgery in the past but it is these moments when perhaps a rehash may be possible for the goaltender.
The injury left the pipes open for goaltender Kent Simpson to come out to finish the shootout. It can’t be easy to come into a high pressure situation where the game literally rests on your shoulders to stop the puck and get the win. After the game, Simpson was all smiles and could laugh about the new predicament he found himself in.
“It was my first time coming in to that kind of a situation. I was happy the guys scored a lot of goals for me and gave me a little cushion. The good thing is that you don’t really have time to think about it, so you just jump in. The guys were scoring goals and I knew it was just a matter of time until I made a save, but I just tried to keep my emotions in check and get a win for the guys.”
As the Heat face the Ontario Reign Wednesday and the Bakersfield Condors for a home and home post Thanksgiving, goalie uncertainties are still looming. Stockton at first turned to Eric Hartzell to return on a PTO after being brought in when Gillies was injured. Hartzell opted out and was released from his PTO as he heads to Germany to start with DEL2 Heilbronnen Falken. Meanwhile the Flames sent goalie Joni Ortio to waivers, suggesting that Hiller should soon return for Calgary, although Karri Ramo has been working out well and makes a good case to keep starting. If no other team claims Ortio, he can move down to the Heat, filling the void left by both Gilles and Poulin. Right now it is a waiting game and until then, Stockton has acquired Pat Nagle from the ECHL Fort Wayne Comets to provide backup net support. Nagle, out of Ferris State, is a veteran netminder in the ECHL and has had several stints up in the AHL over the last few seasons.
One thing is for certain, the Heat are keeping it interesting both on and off the ice. If they can continue to string together wins, especially if their offense takes over and the defense keeps it simple, goaltending won’t be such a glaring need.