Must-win games usually depend on playoff standing. For the Stockton Heat, in a year like no other, Tuesday’s must-win meant peace of mind.
There’s no other way to put it – the Heat were reeling. They found themselves on the short end of the stick in four straight and headed into the regular season finale against Laval yet to scratch the win column against the Rocket.
With eight days until the next game, the Heat didn’t want to stew on a losing streak for more than a week.
“It might be season-changing,” said Garret Sparks, who occupied the crease for the Heat in the come-from-behind win. “A tough plane ride home (Tuesday) night would’ve been devastating, I think. I just knew we couldn’t afford that.”
The game had started on a similar path to the previous six meetings with Laval. Stockton hung tough, even dictated play for periods of time, but the Heat were unable to find that opening goal. Eight minutes into the second period, Yannick Veilleux redirected a puck past Sparks to give the Rocket a 1-0 edge.
A tired team, but not yet a defeated one, Stockton was playing in its seventh-straight road game, its 22nd game in a 44-day marathon to start the season. The opening to the campaign was so taxing that the Heat had not held a full practice in more than a week, the club trying to keep as fresh as possible through the end of the road stint.
Here, in the Bell Centre in Montreal, was a defining moment for a team that had gone from the hottest in the AHL to one of the coldest in the blink of an eye.
Nine minutes after Laval drew first blood, a turnover at Stockton’s defensive blue line developed into potentially the fulcrum of the campaign. Connor Mackey fired the puck forward, tipped by Dmitry Zavgorodniy onto the stick of Adam Ruzicka, who had snuck behind the Rocket defensemen and went in alone on Michael McNiven.
Blocker side, top shelf, tie game.
“It was a feeling we’ve had a lot against Laval, to be solid but in a position where we’re headed into the third period down a goal and having trouble finding goals,” said head coach Cail MacLean. “(Ruzicka’s goal) settled the guys down. It generated the feeling of ‘what we’re doing tonight is paying off.’ We were on the road, tied going into the third. That’s a good position.”
Then, the Heat had to weather a storm. The Rocket threw everything at Stockton early in the third, looking for the go-ahead score. Sparks came up big several times to keep the pucks out of the net, and eventually Byron Froese connected from a sharp angle with just over three minutes on the clock for the go-ahead goal before Eetu Tuulola punctuated the effort with an empty netter.
As the bench boss points out, it was a full team effort.
“Everyone cares about each other in that room. We were working, but we weren’t getting that extraordinary play or the right performance from the right person at the right time. (Tuesday) it was collectively, everybody stepping up.
“It was a (Koletrane) Wilson block. It was a Garret Sparks save. It was a Byron Froese late goal. It was a Glenn Gawdin fight. It was just a lot of things, a lot of contributions from guys on behalf of their team.”
That tough plane ride home that Sparks was worried about never came, and now with two more points in the bank and a losing skid snapped, the Heat can head into a week without a game with less weight to bear.
“(Winning) was huge,” said MacLean. “It gives us a mental boost going into our last home stand. The one thing you love about competition like that, and having the struggles that we’ve had, is it forces you to get better. That set at home against Laval, then the set in (Montreal), it forced us to dig into our game, find ways to improve and push each other. Then you get to the end of it and you finish with a win, now you’ve got some habits you’ve been working on building and you’re in a good position.
“It can be season-changing because you’ve overcome something. I think we’re in a position to move forward really well.”
LAST WEEK’S RESULTS
– Wednesday at Toronto – L, 4-3
– Friday at Laval – L, 3-0
– Sunday at Laval – L, 4-2
– Tuesday at Laval – W, 3-1
– Adam Ruzicka netted his 20th pro goal with his game-tying goal on Tuesday, giving him 10 this season.
– Byron Froese’s score was his first game-winning goal of the season, his fourth marker of the year and third against the Rocket.
– Garret Sparks improved to 5-5-0 on the year with a .924 SVP and 2.40 GAA. He has allowed more than three goals only twice in 11 appearances this season.
– The Heat will return to action and finish out their 11-game regular season home schedule at the Scotiabank Saddledome with a three-game set against Belleville, starting April 14.
THEY SAID IT
“We understand that a lot of people in this situation, it weighs heavy. With so much uncertainty, having the one thing you do really well in life not be going well can create a fair amount of stress within a young mind. It’s a very big deal that we were able to get a really good group effort and we were able to have a bounce go our way. It was important for our team to cap that trip with a win and get that result. The work ethic and the things we’ve been doing have been good, just hadn’t been getting the results.” – Cail MacLean on the importance of closing the road trip with a win
“It was a focal point to make sure our group collectively understood that enough was enough. We had issues with Laval. We had to find a way to come together, reach within each individual self and come up with a winning effort. The guys were fired up for an opportunity to do that for each other.” – MacLean on the strong start Tuesday
“At a certain point, what it takes is a total team effort to dig in and say ‘we can’t accept this anymore.’ For us, we just got the short end of the stick in a lot of games in a row, they all hurt in their own different way. What hurt most is we weren’t finding a way to finish games. It’s important to learn those lessons.” – Garret Sparks on breaking out of the losing streak
“You just have to stay with it and hope for the best. You have to play hard every night and earn the points. If you play hard, the points will come. It’s pretty simple.” – Adam Ruzicka on regaining his scoring touch with goals in back-to-back games
“I just try to play my game. It was successful for me in junior. You have to refine your skills in the pro game, you can’t do the exact same thing you did in junior, but I’ve been trying to play physical, make simple plays, get up in the rush. I’m a big body that can move pretty well, so I’ve been trying to use that to my advantage.” – Koletrane Wilson on his acclimation to the pro game