After nearly eight full days and then 20 minutes of game action Saturday, a flick of Austin Czarnik's wrist brought the Stockton Heat back from the All-Star break.
"It was a slow start for sure," said Heat head coach Cail MacLean. "We looked like we'd been on break. But the guys came on strong in the second period - Austin Czarnik was instrumental in that. Then we didn't look back."
The bench boss had it right - once the Heat hit their stride, there was no slowing that train.
A sluggish first saw Stockton fall behind 1-0 on a snap shot from the faceoff dot, and Bakersfield leading in shots on goal 10-6 into the first intermission.
The Heat turned the deficit into a two-goal edge with a relentless second -riod effort that included a pair of scores from Czarnik, followed by an Alex Gallant strike just 13 ticks after Czarnik's second.
The forward on assignment from Calgary was the lone lamp lighter in the final frame, completing his hat-trick with a deflection on a shot from Luke Philp to yield the 4-1 win over Bakersfield in the AHL's iteration of the Battle of Alberta.
Czarnik's trick aside, the Heat got a strong game out of Jon Gillies with 32 saves on 33 shots, a two-point night from Alan Quine, and a shutdown effort from the penalty-kill to hold the Condors scoreless after being tormented by Bakersfield's man-advantage through most of the season series.
It was a full team effort for two big points to jump out of the gate in February.
"We wanted to come out hotter, but that's just the way it works sometimes," said Czarnik. "We found our game in the second period, started to make some plays. It helped us get the win tonight."
With 27 games remaining in the regular-season slate, the Heat aren't quite in the home stretch but they're coming through the third turn with a full head of steam. The win over the Condors pulled Stockton to within two points of the top spot in the Pacific with a game in hand on Tucson, leaving the goal of a division title still very much there for the taking.
As each game gets magnified and points become critical, Stockton will have the chance to continue separating itself from the pack thanks to a schedule packed with divisional contests.
Armed with the AHL's top offence, a mix of veteran savvy and young talent, the high-scoring Heat will now aim to keep rolling as they pack their bags for a two-week road trip.
- Czarnik's hat-trick was the third of the season for Stockton, joining Quine and Oliver Kylington.
- Czarnik has 22 points (12g,10a) in 18 games with the Heat.
- The Heat have overcome deficits in four of six wins over Bakersfield.
- Quine (2g,5a) and Byron Froese (2g,4a) each have active four-game point streaks.
- The Heat have only three games outside of divisional play the rest of the season, with two of them coming this weekend at Iowa.
THEY SAID IT:
"Every point is important, as all the teams will tell you right now. We're no different than anyone else. We like the position we're in right now but you can't rest on that at all. It gets really tight and points are hard to come by." - MacLean on the importance of divisional wins
"(Czarnik has) such a great shot. You just get him in positions where if he has a little bit of a look he can really place it well. He was a big factor. In order to win these games, you need your big guys to be the best players on the ice and I thought Austin did a good job with that tonight." - MacLean on Czarnik's play
"When you come out of a break with a win, it's what you need. You need that momentum to start carrying over. We're happy about tonight but we have more work to do this next week to keep this train going." - Czarnik on the win Saturday
"It is tough (to come back from a long break). With (Bakersfield) playing (Friday) night, I thought that was an advantage and you could tell in the first period, they outplayed us. Cail came in and said we got that out of us, now it's time to work, and that's what we did." - Alex Gallant on returning from break
"I was looking at the standings before (the game) and it's crazy how tight everyone is. You take a week, a weekend off, anyone can pass you. Every game from here on out is a big one." - Gallant on the divisional race