Less than three months ago the Heat found themselves atop the Pacific Division, but going winless in their last five games of 2016 combined with a 5-13-1 start to 2017, knocked the team towards the bottom of the division.
For whatever reason, bounces weren’t going their way and neither was their ability to capitalize on scoring streaks with just about everyone not named “Jankowski” falling silent offensively at the exact same time.
However, things are now beginning to turn around for the club. Five wins in their last six chances will do that to a team, and when you throw in that a pair of wins busted long streaks for the opposition, like the win on March 4 over San Jose, snapping their 15-game points streak and then this past Wednesday against a Condors team that had won six-straight games, confidence may be at the highest it’s been all season.
“I think when you get your wins along the way your group feels better about themselves and it brings some of the swagger back that was missing during the middle portion of our season,” Head Coach Ryan Huska explained. “In general, I think there’s more flow to our game now because the guys aren’t playing more freely.”
During their tough stretch to start 2017, Stockton saw themselves with just 4 goals in a seven game stretch from January 25 through February 11. Fast-forward to the last seven games for the Heat, where they’ve gone 5-2-0, Stockton has scored 25 goals including scoring four or more in each of their five wins in that span. They’re also holding opponents to just 11 goals in that span including holding the opposition to two or fewer goals in six of those seven games.
“I think we have a renewed focus on our play away from pucks and our defending game,” Huska said. “We’re playing better away from the puck and giving up less quality chances against. Because of that, I think it’s leading to more offensive opportunities and guys are feeling better about themselves and capitalizing on their chances that we weren’t before.”
Apart from the small details and the commitment to defending, there’s absolutely no question that the Heat’s special teams success correlates directly with their recent surge. The club has scored five power-play goals in their last five games and have gone nearly perfect on the penalty kill, killing off all but two penalties in their last eight games.
“Often times we’ve talked all year long about the special teams being the difference in games,” Huska said. “On Wednesday, we got a power play goal…they didn’t. We’re getting more bodies to the net for one. When our power play was struggling, we had one, maybe two guys at the net and we’d be easily outnumbered in front. Now when you look at the film, we always seem to have four guys at the net when shots are taken and it’s giving us opportunities to not only get our rebounds but to retrieve pucks and get into better positions to score.”
“As for the penalty kill, I think there’s a group mentality that they are all willing to pay a price and I think it’s growing, the willingness to pay a price, and that’s why it’s been going so well for us.”
A big test now awaits the Stockton Heat down the California-99 as the club heads to Bakersfield today in preparation for a meeting with the Condors tomorrow at 6:00 p.m. in what arguably could be the biggest game of the year. Both the Heat and the Tucson Roadrunners, who are virtually tied right now in the division, may have a chance to move up to fourth should the Condors drop their two games in regulation this weekend. While Stockton should relish the chance to get back to fourth, they still only control their own destiny, which means taking down the team they are chasing on the road on Saturday.
Road games for the Heat have been hard though as the team hasn’t won away from Stockton Arena since December 17 in San Diego. They’ve gone 13-straight games without a win with the last 10 of those games ending in regulation defeats.
Something that the team is aware of, but as Coach Huska explains, shouldn’t change their confidence going into Saturday.
“No matter where you are, your style of play should be the same and in our situation, I think we caught a bit of a break from the schedule makers because Bakersfield has had a tough week,” Huska said. “They play tonight, against Ontario which is going to be a heavy, hard game, and we’re not.”
“We’re basically resting in Bakersfield tonight and make sure we’re ready to play the same style we played Wednesday night.”
They should receive a boost as well from the expected return of Morgan Klimchuk who missed Wednesday’s game with a minor upper body injury. The other injured players were not expected to play this weekend, however the only one the Heat could see on either Saturday in Bakersfield or Sunday at home against the Grand Rapids Griffins could be veteran blueliner Mike Kostka.
Kostka, who was acquired by the Flames in a trade deadline deal that brought forward Curtis Lazar to the organization, still is looking to make his Heat debut as he had an Upper Body Injury when acquired from the Ottawa Senators. In 46 games with the Binghamton Senators this year, Kostka has a goal and 11 assists. He’s played over 500 AHL games and is just 13 games away from playing in his 600th pro game.