Better late than never is the theme of the AHL season this year. The Stockton Heat dealt with league delays, division delays and schedule delays, but are finally hitting the ground running on some game action. They took a couple of games to get up to speed but pulled together a pair of wins, finishing their opening series against the Toronto Marlies with a 2-2 record. Here are some storylines to follow as the Heat begins a seven-game road trip on March 3rd.
Call it what you want. Lack of preseason games, latest start to the season, a new division to compete in, complete relocation for the season, etc. There are a lot of adjustments that were made and a lot of reasons the Heat were not looking like themselves in their first two games. Even after their second loss, Luke Philp was asked about what they hope their identity will be this year in the Canadian division and he said, “We need to play a little more pissed off in certain situations and really bear down when we get opportunities to not only score, but maybe play a little more physical and be a little harder to play against.”
The Wolf is Here, But Not for Long
In the first two games of their opening series, the Heat only recorded two goals. The Marlies on the other hand, earned a whopping 12. Everett Silvertips standout and highly regarded Flames prospect, Dustin Wolf got his first pro start in net on February 21st, but it was cut short after the Marlies scored their 5th of the night. But his story did not end there. Wolf got the nod again in the squad’s third game of the season and put on a stunning 36 save performance and played a key role in the team’s first victory of the season. He played his last expected game with the Heat on Friday as he will rejoin the Silvertips now that their season is set to start on March 19th.
Wolf proved to not only himself but the Flames organization why he deserves the hype and high expectations that come from being named the WHL’s goaltender of the year in the 2019-20 season. The coaching staff were sure to take advantage of the opportunity to get Wolf some pro ice time and he did a lot of great things with it.
Shuffle It Up
The taxi squad and recent inconsistencies in the Flames lineup have caused a lot of shuffling throughout the organization in recent weeks. Anticipated captain of the Heat, Byron Froese has been up with the NHL squad the entire AHL season so far and has yet to join the Heat for a game. In his place, Alex Petrovic has been standing in as captain until Froese returns, if he returns. Petrovic is in his first year with the team but has already used his veteran presence and NHL experience to lead the Heat through a rough start and help them come out the other side with a .500 record
The Heat will also find themselves down a goalie and the nagging day-to-day injury Jacob Markstrom is dealing with for the Flames is causing a need for some of the guys that would typically be around the Heat locker room. Artyom Zagidulin came in for relief for David Rittich last week and Louis Domingue is the taxi squad goalie at the moment.
Knocking at the Door
NHL games for some of these prospects are closer in their vision than ever before. Their peers such as Byrone Froese, Buddy Robinson, Glenn Gawdin and current Heat forward, Connor Mackey are all getting their taste of big-time hockey this season if they haven’t already. A situation like this is sure to ignite a deeper level of competition in some of these young guys that may have never surfaced before. Already off to a hot start in recent games are top forwards Matthew Phillips and Adam Ruzicka.
Phillips elevated his game in recent competitions earning a pair of points in both of the last two games. Even in the games where the statistical performance of the team appears dreadful, his chances do not go unnoticed. He is starting to show his line chemistry and has earned a leadership designation in this season wearing the A on his jersey. A lot of talk around Phillips’ game is worded around the size of him, but in recent years, the NHL has not discriminated against smaller players and his shot in the Flames lineup could be coming within weeks if he keeps up the good work.
Another player who is hard to miss and has been making things hard on the opposition in recent outings is Adam Ruzicka. What he categorized as a, “slow start,” after two games quickly turned into top point production in the games following. Ruzicka had himself a three-point game on Wednesday evening and followed up with a two-goal, one assist performance on Friday that was inches away from a hat trick.
Hitting the Road
Head Coach Cail MacLean was quite pleased with the transition his team was able to make after a tough first two games. After the win on February 28th, he told the media, “I do think we’ve taken a nice graduation from getting our feet under us to starting to play our game.”
The Heat will start their lengthy road trip on March 3rd where they will play Belleville Senators followed by two more games against the Toronto Marlies and are set to finish the trip against the Manitoba Moose. MacLean could not confirm if Connor Zary and Dustin Wolf would be on this road trip, but the likeliness is quite low as these two are expected to join their WHL teams. At the very least Dustin Wolf. They will not be back at the dome until March 18th for their four-game series against Laval Rocket. The Heat will test the waters against another new opponent on Wednesday and see if they are able to keep their momentum. Game time is set for 5:00 pm (MT).