The makeup of the Stockton Heat has undergone a critical series of alterations over the past two months.
Although last week saw the return of the team’s leading scorer, centre Derek Grant, and Swedish defenceman Oliver Kylington, both of whom missed more than a month of action with a fractured jaw and upper body injury, respectively, the current roster is still without several key cogs.
Right winger Freddie Hamilton, third on the team with 35 points, recently earned his second call-up to Calgary. One of the Heat’s most efficient blueliners, Jakub Nakladal, has been with the Flames since February 3 and Tyler Wotherspoon, often the Czech’s linemate in Stockton, joined him north of the border last week. And after a mind-numbingly slow start to his 2015-16 AHL campaign, right winger Garnet Hathaway parlayed his play into an opportunity at the next level just under a month ago.
Ironically, the absence of the player who has been, arguably, the most important recall for Calgary, goaltender Joni Ortio, has been, seemingly, the most bearable for the Heat. This is thanks to the strong play of Kevin Poulin, who continually challenged the Finn for playing time in December and January.
All minor league affiliates experience the effects of a slew of transactions each season, but it is telling that the Heat, who saw only three players from its opening night roster called to Calgary prior to the beginning of February, have tread water but ultimately weathered this storm thus far. They own a 14-2-1-0 record at home since the start of the New Year.
Yes, the additions of playmaking wingers Hunter Shinkaruk, who has collected 47 points between his time in Utica and Stockton, and Mason Raymond, who has averaged a point per game since joining the Heat in early February, have helped greatly on the offensive end.
But third and fourth-line wingers like Mitchell Heard and Blair Riley, both of whom are under contract with the Heat, and Hunter Smith, who is known more for his size and enforcement than his goalscoring prowess, have also stepped up in place of the hurt or shipped-out first and second-liners that amassed the engine of this offence for the first four months of the season. Even defenceman Kenney Morrison’s shot from the point is, at times, Nakladal-esque.
The Heat are still in the AHL playoff race. Although they currently sit in sixth place in the Pacific Division, 81 percentage points separates them from a guaranteed playoff spot.
More call-ups prior to the end of the regular season on April 17 are almost a certainty. There is a sense that it is a matter of time before two of the team’s leaders in points, left winger Kenny Agostino and Grant, both of whom have already received tastes of action with Calgary this season, are once again recalled.
But it is undoubtedly gut-check for this team. Eight of their final eleven regular season contests are against the two top teams in the division- the Ontario Reign and the San Diego Gulls. But perhaps more disconcerting is the fact that five road contests remain.
No matter the sport or level of play, clubs are expected to perform better at home than on the road. But to say that the Heat have taken this concept to heart lately would be an understatement. Since the beginning of February, they have secured four points out of a possible 20 in away contests. Four of the eight losses in the span featured a goal differential of three or more.
Stockton could not upend the Manitoba Moose, a team already eliminated from playoff contention, in a pair of weeknight tilts in Winnipeg, dropping Wednesday’s contest 3-2 after being shut out 3-0 on Monday to snap a four-game point streak.
Mitchell Heard got the Heat off the snide in the third period of the latter game when he scored the team’s first goal in over 108 minutes of play.
"I picked the puck up in the neutral zone and tried to beat my guy to the outside," Heard said. "The defenceman kind of scrambled a bit and that allowed me to get a step on him. Fortunately I was able to put the shot past the goalie low blocker."
It took seventy seconds for the Heat to collect their second of the game when Agostino, still fresh off of last week’s reassignment from Calgary, found the back of the net for his 19th of the season.
With momentum in their favor, the Heat could not tally a third to force extra time as Moose goaltender Connor Hellebuyck snuffed out the other eight opportunities developed by the visiting offence in the period.
"We didn't have the work or the identity that we needed to have tonight to get a win," head coach Ryan Huska said. "[The Manitoba Moose] were much hungrier than we were. We played like individuals instead of as a team and when you do that frustration creeps in and it's not good for anybody."
Stagnancy on the offensive end could not be counteracted by solid play in net from Poulin, who outsaved his Manitoba counterpart in each of the games.
"That's the way he is - he gives us chances to win," head coach Ryan Huska said of his goaltender. "You cannot fault him for these couple games here. He's done what he has to do."
Three straight goals in the second period doomed the Heat in Monday’s matchup.
Centre Bill Arnold, Morrison, and Agostino each had three shots to pace the Heat, who did not produce more than ten shots on goal in any period. Hellebuyck, Winnipeg’s prized goaltending prospect, needed to make only 23 saves to nab the shutout.
"It was not a very good night," Huska said. "That was not out team that showed up tonight. It was unfortunate and there's no excuse. I think some nights things go that way and this was one for us."
The losses were preceded by an inspired performance on Saturday night in Bakersfield where the Heat fought back from a 4-2 deficit in the third period to force overtime and, ultimately, gain two points with a 6-5 win via Hunter Shinkaruk’s dagger one minute into overtime.
The notch was preceded by Shinkaruk’s score off a Drew Shore-created rebound which tied it early in the third period.
"I just drove the lane. [Derek Grant] made a great pass and I’m not too sure how it went in. I just got the shot off and was lucky enough to put it in," Shinkaruk said of the go-ahead. "On the second one, I just dropped the puck to [Drew Shore] and he made a good shot. The goalie didn’t really handle it and it just kind of dropped down and I found it. It was exciting and it’s always fun to help the team win."
Stockton (27-26-2-2) will continue its season-long five-game road trip tonight in Ontario, where victory has eluded it since December. The Reign sit in first place of the Pacific Division and are on the verge of clinching a playoff spot with a .698 winning percentage entering Friday.