photo: Jack Lima Photography
You can’t shovel rain. A lesson that seemed so painfully obvious at the first ever rained out AHL Outdoor Game on December 18th, later rescheduled for the next day where the weather cooperated and the Stockton Heat played their game and won over the Bakersfield Condors.
Like the rain, that flows right off the shovel, wins just seem to be escaping the Heat. There are too many moments where the team looks as if they are wading through the puddles that collected in the corners on that rainy Friday. Their speed is choked, their passes miss the mark, and their collective energy lacks the drive to get the puck to the net.
The team feels the frustration of not being able to string together even a couple wins. With a 9-14-0-2 record so far this season, the Heat are sitting in the basement in their division ( Pacific, 7th) and 13th in the Western Conference. Their special teams aren’t anything to write home about, ranking 18th on the power play and 25th on the penalty kill overall. The Heat, save for a few veterans, are a young group of guys who are still figuring out the game of hockey. This is why they are in the AHL, a developmental league, but the losing hurts all the same. It is difficult to win games when you are down a goal before the second period begins. It’s a struggle to win games when your team doesn’t put in a full sixty minute effort. Ahead of the game against the San Jose Barracuda this past Sunday, forward Bryce Van Brabant expressed frustration at his team’s performance.
“It’s just frustrating having games go the way they have these last few weeks. We’ve played well for two periods but seem to have one period be in a lull. We have to manage the puck better. We have to limit the neutral zone turnovers and the odd-man rushes we give up.”
In interviews with both the players and Head Coach Ryan Huska throughout the month of December, the list of things the Heat need to do to get their game back on track are echoed over and over:
-play simple and not get too fancy with the puck
-outwork our opponent
-play well in our end
-create chances and put pressure on early
-play our game
What is Stockton’s “game” exactly, then?
Coach Huska has been visibly unhappy with his team’s performance and their defined lack of intensity as of late. After the 5-1 loss to the Barracuda Sunday, when asked how his team played and their work ethic, Huska responded bluntly, “Not very good…not nearly good enough tonight to compete in a game like this.” He wants his players to win the 1-on-1 puck battles deep in the corners. He wants his guys to step up in the dressing room and start contributing, and be a team that moves their feet and is hard working every shift on the ice. The identity his team is searching for is one that is tight in the neutral zone and smart defensively. They are a team that gets the puck in the net. Right now, Huska says, they are a team that has a tendency to stand around and watch the game go by and overthink the game. They are a team afraid to make mistakes with the puck and that doesn’t win you hockey games.
The games don’t get any easier to win the further along in the season you go either. The Heat are going to need to right the ship before it lists on its side for too long and find a way to the .500 mark soon. Stockton put together a better game as they battled the first place Ontario Reign on Tuesday night. The energy they seemed to be lacking since before Thanksgiving crept back into their game as they battled harder in the corners and crashed the net, putting 40 shots on top-notch Reign netminder Peter Budaj. In the end, Ontario edged the Heat 2-1, but Coach Huska seemed more satisfied with the energy and compete level his team displayed.
“For whatever reason, when you have a few bad games in a row it takes a little bit to get yourself back on track,” said Huska post game. “You have to earn the bounces or the ‘puck luck’ that winning teams get and I think today we went back to working and competing.”
The Heat need to hold on to their work ethic as they head into Ontario on Thursday for a New Year’s Eve showdown and a pair of back to back games against the Texas Stars and the Bakersfield Condors over the weekend. They also need more than a few contributors on the ice to get the job done.
Who’s Stepping Up: Bryce Van Brabant and Derek Grant
Heat forward Bryce Van Brabant has been stepping up for the team every chance he gets. This is just his second season with the AHL and he’s spent his entire career with the Calgary Flames organization. He’s a big guy at 6′ 3″ and he uses his frame to his advantage to play the puck hard all while being a pretty good skater. He isn’t shy about getting in the eyes of the netminder and he puts the same product on the ice every night he laces up the skates. Coach Huska values his consistency citing him in a recent interview as one of the most consistent guys he has in the lineup night in and night out. His hard work and physical play has paid off as in his last three games he has put three goals in the net.
Derek Grant is another to watch for. The Stockton forward has played a significant role through the month of December, contributing on the scoresheet and has a team record high 5 game point streak behind him. Coach Huska commented that he is solid in the faceoff circle, has been consistent at generating offense when it counts and responsible on both sides of the ice, something he wants to see more guys do.
“He plays against the other team’s top defensive pair every night and we need another guy to step up to take some of the pressure off of him… He’s done a good job for us over the last little while and we want to make sure other guys are stepping up and contributing the way he is.”
When asked about his point streak after Sunday’s loss to the Barracuda, Grant was decidedly humble and focused more on how the team needed to get some wins under their belt.
“It’s a good thing for me, I guess, but when you’re not winning games it’s not something you think too much about. You can’t be too happy with it really. As a team we need to find ways to win.”
He emphasized that the only ones who could fix their current slump were themselves. They had to put the work in and that effort had to come, particularly since the final part of December featured four games in a six day stretch.
Energy Boost in Mitchell Heard
The Heat have lacked energy, looking lackluster moving through most of December. Sometimes a team needs a guy who can take one for the team and help the momentum shift and help tilt the ice. These energy guys may not necessarily rack up points in net, but their presence is felt by both teams. Forward Mitchell Heard, called up from the ECHL Adirondack Thunder, knows how to find the back of the net and insert energy into the lineup. Heard played for the Heat during the preseason before being sent down to the Thunder. He played 23 games, scoring 9 goals and 14 assists (23 points) and recently had his second ever four-point night in the ECHL. In a game against the Manchester Monarchs on December 26th, Heard tallied 2 goals and 2 assists, then immediately came in to Stockton for a game the following day. In his second game with the team against the Ontario Reign on Tuesday, Heard took it upon himself to help his team overcome a slow start.
“It was one of those things where I’m just trying to set the tone for the game and get some energy going for the boys,” Heard commented about his fight against Reign Curt Gogol. “Coming off a loss the other night, you just want to build some energy and some jump in our game. They’re a top team in our division and we wanted to let them know we were here to play tonight.”
Heard also notched a helper on the only goal of the evening from Van Brabant. The Heat will look to guys like Heard, Grant and Van Brabant to continue their contributions, but it’s going to take more than these three to step up and get the team back on track.
vs Ontario Reign (Citizens Business Bank Arena, NYE)
vs Texas Stars (Stockton Arena 1/2/16)
vs Bakersfield Condors (Stockton Arena 1/3/16)