For this group, it’s always been the resilience.
With 16 games remaining in the regular season, ‘must win’ wasn’t a term that statistically would apply, but anecdotally was very much in effect. The Heat had just dropped a pair on home ice in their last two outings, falling from a first-place tie in the Pacific Division to third and closer to an early drive home than a one seed in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
Enter the Bakersfield Condors, a club that had dropped nine in a row and had not experienced a win in more than a calendar month coming into Friday’s tilt at Stockton Arena, and the stage seemed set for a bounce-back as we’ve seen so many times this year from the Heat.
Don’t let one loss become two. Don’t let two become three. They have yet to let three become four.
Prior to puck drop, team captain Byron Froese declared the team was approaching the Battle of Highway 99 showdown like a playoff game.
Forty-two seconds in, the Heat were down a goal. Less than eight minutes in, they were down two. When the dust settled on the opening frame, the Condors had a multi-goal edge and had the Heat on their back foot.
But as we’ve seen time and time again this season, when the Heat hit rough waters they just keep rowing.
Austin Czarnik put the home team on the board just 71 ticks into the second period, cutting the deficit in half. Luke Philp potted his team-leading 19th goal of the campaign 4:14 later, pulling the Heat back to even footing. Riding the momentum, Stockton kept pushing until a 5-on-3 powerplay midway through the third, when Matthew Phillips didn’t get quite enough on a loose puck in the blue paint, sending the rubber across the goal mouth to Eetu Tuulola, who put it home for the decisive 3-2 lead that stood to the final horn.
“We weren’t happy with the first (period),” said Czarnik, who lit the lamp to start the comeback push. “We knew we had better. Everyone knew we could play better, each individual. To come out right away and get that first one, then right after again on the power play, to be able to get (Luke Philp’s) goal, that was huge for us. It helped us take momentum and carry it over to the rest of the game.”
A big two points, and a big weekend for Stockton as the Heat came back the next night and earned a point in a shootout in front of a crowd of 7,642 at Bakersfield’s Mechanics Bank Arena.
Three of a possible four points, both games involving the Heat erasing deficits en route to adding to the always-important point total.
When it comes to March, the results require broader context beyond the wins and losses. In the tight Pacific Division race, the Heat maintained their two-point edge for third over the San Diego Gulls. They’re up four points on fifth-place Ontario. Ahead of the Heat are the Tucson Roadrunners in first with 73 points, five better than Stockton’s total of 68, followed by the Colorado Eagles with 70.
Only a Tuesday tussle with the San Jose Barracuda, in seventh but riding a five-game point streak, separates Stockton from a huge weekend set against the Eagles Saturday and Sunday at Stockton Arena.
- Stockton’s win Friday clinched the season series against Bakersfield, the AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers. The Heat are now 7-2-0-2 on the year against the Condors.
- Tuulola recorded multi-point efforts in both Friday and Saturday’s games, the first time in his career that he has scored goals or posted multiple points in back-to-back games. He has 10 points (4g,6a) in his last nine games played.
- Czarnik became the sixth member of the Heat to hit the 15-goal mark this season, Stockton tied for tops in the AHL for depth of players with 15 or more goals. Belleville is knotted with the Heat in that respect.
- With an assist in Saturday’s game, Froese reached the 40-point mark on the season. It’s the third time in four years that Froese has hit 40 or more points.
- Martin Pospisil netted his second professional goal in Saturday’s game. Fellow rookie Adam Ruzicka recorded an assist on each.
THEY SAID IT:
“I thought it was a pretty good weekend. There are some areas that we need to clean up. Giving away a late goal in the second period (Saturday) is something that is unacceptable, but getting three out of four points is certainly positive.” – Head coach Cail MacLean on the weekend
“We just look at playing our best hockey, no matter the opponent. Bakersfield’s a very good hockey team. They play a good style. They’re fast and they play hard. They’re always tough to beat. So to be able to be where we are against them, we’re happy with that.” – MacLean on winning the season series against the AHL affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers
“The guys did a good job of taking a break in between periods, pausing and understanding that we’re going to have to work a lot harder, we’re going to have to be a lot sharper mentally to get to points out of this game. The early goal in the second helped for sure. That got us rolling a little bit, got us some momentum.” – MacLean on Friday’s comeback win
“Every game is important right now. Every point is important. Every game is going to be a hard battle every night. You definitely feel that there’s a lot of teams battling for a playoff spot, so that’s a good thing for us. It keeps us on our edges all the time.” – Tuulola on playing in his first AHL playoff race
“It’s going to be hard. Goals are a lot harder to come by this time of the year, we’re not scoring five, six, seven goals anymore like we used to. We just have to get to the dirty areas, get the puck up to the point and find a way to bang home some ugly goals. That’s just what we have to tell the young guys, let the whole team know and remind them on a daily basis it’s just going to be dirty goals and grinding from here on out.” – Buddy Robinson on how the Heat can keep generating offense in the playoff push