No need to check the temperature, the Stockton Heat are hot.
With at least a point in all four games this season, including wins in three straight, the Heat returned home Sunday from a successful, 2-for-2 weekend in SoCal, a stretch that included raining on San Diego’s home opener and spoiling Bakersfield’s Saturday.
The results have been impressive, the play on the ice even more so. At 5-on-5, Stockton is out-pacing opponents at a remarkable 9-2 clip through four contests. The Heat have trailed just twice during play this season, both deficits coming Saturday, and it took 45 seconds to erase one deficit, 3:25 for the latter to vanish. The Flames’ AHL affiliate is one of only two teams in the league to hold opponents to fewer than three goals in every game this season.
The secret ingredient? Head coach Mitch Love has an answer.
“It’s the leadership and maturity we have in our dressing room,” said Stockton’s bench boss, off to a 3-0-1 start in his professional coaching career. “Getting Byron Froese back, our team captain, that’s been a big addition. Glenn Gawdin, a guy in his fourth year, I could go up and down the list of guys. There’s not a lot of panic in our group. That’s important.
“You’ll have pockets in every game that won’t go your way. Having that composure, that maturity on the bench, saying the right things and worrying about your next shift. That’s important.”
Early days still, but the Heat have flexed their multiple paths to victory already. They’ve done it with top-line talent, like in Friday’s win over San Diego, the top line of Jakob Pelletier (1 goal, 2 assists), Adam Ruzicka (1 goal, 1 assist) and Matthew Phillips (1 goal, 1 assist) paced the Heat in a rout. They’ve done it with depth – Kevin Gravel netting an equalizer in the first period for the Heat and third line winger Justin Kirkland lighting the lamp for the third consecutive game to draw even in the second. They’ve done it with solid defense and goaltending throughout – the Heat strangling opponent attacks to the tune of 1.75 goals against per game, the second-lowest mark in the league.
“We have a very, very deep group,” said right wing Matthew Phillips. “Any guy in our forward group is capable of playing a top-nine, top-six role. It’s good and it provides a lot of competition. Our lineup is very balanced. We have guys who, we all play the same system, but some guys do it in different ways than others. We have some big, strong, fast players and we have some smaller, skilled guys. I think as long as we’re all working on the same page, we’ll match up well with any team because we have the ability to bring something different depending who’s on the ice.”
A rare treat in the always-busy AHL schedule, Stockton has seven days between their last game and their next, going Saturday-to-Saturday without competition. It’s an opportunity to fine-tune areas that could still use some refreshing, not that problem areas are plentiful for a team that has already banked seven of a possible eight points thus far in the season. It’s an opportunity to continue to gel as a group as well, with Froese and Gawdin each making their season debuts with the Heat over this past road trip.
With the veteran presence in the room and leadership group of Froese, Gravel and Phillips, complacency won’t be an issue. This is a team built to compete over the long haul, and they know it.
Improvement this week is the name of the game, and it’s a process that Love and staff relish before welcoming the Colorado Eagles and San Jose Barracuda to Stockton Arena this weekend.
“We’re at a point where it’s been a bit of a college hockey schedule, lots of practice time,” said Love. “For myself it’s been good, it’s been a chance to get to know the players and get accustomed to this level of hockey, get into their routine, how they work, how they operate and their personalities.
“We’ve thrown a lot at these young men, but they’ve done a great job. They come to the rink with the right mindset, wanting to get better, wanting to learn. Now it’s about finding that balance, making sure we’re game-ready when games come, that we’re ready to go and play some good hockey when the puck drops.”
LAST WEEK’S RESULTS
Friday at San Diego – W, 6-2
Saturday at Bakersfield – W, 4-2
- Stockton is off to its second 3-0-1 start in team history, last pulling the feat in 2016-17. That season ended in the Heat’s lone playoff berth.
- Since his AHL debut on February 21, 2021, Dustin Wolf has a 4-0-1 record with a .952 Save Percentage.
- Jakob Pelletier has factored into all three game-winning goals on the year for the Heat, scoring a pair and earning an assist on Saturday’s winner.
- Justin Kirkland has goals in three consecutive games for the first time in his career.
- Glenn Gawdin recorded his 100th AHL point with an assist on Saturday.
THEY SAID IT
“The execution of a lot of things that we spoke on last week, practiced individually and as a team, I thought the guys did a really good job on. A little bit of fatigue sank in, which created some mental errors by us some times at Bakersfield, but overall I was impressed with our guys and their maturity of sticking through things, weathering storms. We got some great goaltending from both (Adam) Werner and (Dustin) Wolf in allowing us to get a couple of road wins under our belt.” – Mitch Love on the road trip
“It makes (the goalies’) lives predictable on the ice. They know there won’t be breakdowns in front of the net. It also inspires the goalies to work hard, too. You see (the defensemen), they’re laying out to block shots. People make fun of goalies for being crazy, but if you look at the defensemen and forwards, they’re blocking shots without the mask on. That’s been the rallying cry for the goalies – if they’re willing to do that, we have to compete for them.” – Goaltending development coach Thomas Speer on the steady play in front of Stockton’s netminders
“We’ve got a lot of character. We have a lot of different personalities on the team in a lot of different roles. It’s a great group to be with. It was great in training camp, from then on, and I think the team has come together really well, meshed really well over the last month.” – Byron Froese on this year’s Heat team
“What I really like about (Jakob Pelletier) is how competitive he is. He’s obviously not the biggest guy on the ice, but he wants to win that puck battle every time he’s involved. He just works harder than the guy next to him, every time. He’s really smart. For some younger guys coming into the AHL, it’s a really big adjustment. He’s had no problem with that. He’s a player who you already know where he’s going to be on the ice because he’s always in the right spot. He’s always willing to be the first guy to go get the puck, not to mention the skill set he has. It’s great to play with him.” – Matthew Phillips on line mate Jakob Pelletier