“Here we go again.”
For just a brief second, the thought had to hit Stockton’s bench. A pair of losses had already been tattooed onto the Heat’s schedule and here on Wednesday, just over a minute into the third game of the season, yet another tough bounce off a skate ended up in the back of the net for the snake-bitten and puck-luck-less team in its home away from home.
This time, the script wasn’t going to be the same.
“What I’m really proud of our team for,” said MacLean, “the resilience to get through those first two games, then to take an unlucky goal like that, which was an unlucky bounce, and to manage through it and stay on task, I was really happy with that. Our team made big strides over the week, and resilience was really displayed well there.”
Zac Leslie potted his first of the season with just over a minute left in the first period, the first marker of the young campaign for the Heat that did not come in the third frame with games already out of reach, and the tide of the game and the series immediately shifted.
“We needed someone to execute for us,” said MacLean. “That’s where we fell short in the first couple of games. We weren’t winning that game within the game of finishing on your chances. Zac Leslie made a great play to start that, he executed on a shot that lifted our bench, got us into a 1-1 game and gave us a reward for that resilience.”
From there, the Heat took over – and emphatically so – with a cumulative 11-2 score differential over the next five periods of play against the visiting Toronto Marlies. Paced by back-to-back three-point efforts from second-year pro Adam Ruzicka in what can only accurately be described as dominant performances along with linemate Matthew Phillips, the Heat rattled off four consecutive markers on Wednesday en route to a 4-2 win before skating to an 8-1 victory in the series finale on Friday.
It was a series that was both revelatory of Stockton’s start-of-season flaws and rust but also its accelerated learning curve, as the Heat flexed excellent special teams play, scoring depth and defensive chops in the latter half of the four-game set. The boost in performance helped the home team earn an even 2-2 split against a Toronto club that had four games already under its belt as the Heat closed out a 348-day, COVID-caused hockey hiatus with the season opener on Sunday.
“It says a lot about not only the players on the team, but the coaching staff and how they were able to work with us and make adjustments,” said Phillips, who produced four points with three assists and a goal in the season’s first four contests. “I think we showed a lot of resilience early and we had to regroup after a couple of tough games.”
It’s one thing to regroup, it’s another to sustain success. Stockton, riding momentum of back-to-back wins including Friday’s romp, will hit the road for its first change of scenery with a nearly-three-week jaunt that features games against divisional foes Belleville Senators, Toronto Marlies and Manitoba Moose before returning to the club’s temporary home of the Scotiabank Saddledome on March 18.
LAST WEEK’S RESULTS
– Rookies who scored their first professional points over the four-game set included forwards Emilio Pettersen (1g, 2a), Mark Simpson (2g, 1a), Connor Zary (2a), Connor Mackey (2a) and Colton Poolman (1a).
– Adam Ruzicka became the first Heat player with back-to-back three-point games since February 17 and 20, 2019, when Alan Quine also had four goals and two assists over two games.
– With a goal, two assists and a fight in Friday’s series finale, Martin Pospisil recorded Stockton’s first Gordie Howe Hat Trick since October 12, 2018 with Tyler Graovac posting a fight, two goals and an assist.
– In Stockton’s two wins against Toronto, the Heat went 5-for-9 on the power play while holding the Marlies scoreless on eight chances with a pair of 5-on-3s.
– Flames prospect Dustin Wolf’s pro career got off to a rocky start with six goals against on his first 12 shots faced. He rebounded by stopping 62 of the next 64 pucks that came his way while earning a pair of wins.
THEY SAID IT
“It was 3-2 at the time. Obviously you don’t want to go down 5-on-3 in the span of a few minutes, but the message on the ice to my guys was just protect the back door, I’ve got everything strong side and let’s get the job done. We played a really solid game, and it was nice to get rewarded on that front.” – Dustin Wolf on his and the team’s play down the stretch in Stockton’s 4-2 win Wednesday
“(The way I finished last year) gave me confidence. To also play on the power play, be a leader and get more ice time (helps). This year I feel much better on the ice. It’s a good start.” – Martin Pospisil on his confidence and play in his second pro season
“I’m confident now in all different ways. It’s not just in scoring but my whole two-way play. Playing defensively, creating chances for my teammates, the overall play around my game.” – Adam Ruzicka on how he’s feeling at the start of his second pro season
“It’s a great feeling knowing every now and then, (Wolf) has the ability to save a puck that he probably has no business touching, but he finds a way to get a piece of it and make a great save. That’s one part of it. But in (Friday’s) game, he just looked solid all game. It really relaxes the whole team when guys can just play their position because they know he’s going to do his job.” – Matthew Phillips on the play of Dustin Wolf