There's no question who wants the puck on their stick when the game's on the line.
That was once again proven this past week when Curtis Lazar netted his fourth game-winning goal of the season, pushing the Stockton Heat over divisional foe Ontario Saturday night at Stockton Arena.
"He's been very big for us," said Heat head coach Cail MacLean. "He's done a lot for us in terms of his 5-on-5 play, on special teams, and some overtime goals as well. Really good job by him on the ice, and he's got a lot of character off the ice."
It wasn't a must-win by any means, being the middle of January, but the two points on the line were of significance. It was the end of a five-game homestand, a series of games in which Heat faithful witnessed 58 combined goals between Stockton and its opposition, and the home team came into the game with the Reign with a 1-3 mark in the stretch.
A win against a team behind Stockton in the standings would provide a boost to a team that came into the game sixth in the Pacific.
The Heat never trailed after the first period, either tied or leading after Kerby Rychel and Dillon Dube put in a pair of goals in an 18-second spurt.
Still, with overtime looming and an extra point hanging in the balance, things were tense.
Stockton dominated OT, possessing the puck for all but roughly 20 seconds, but couldn't solve Peter Budaj. Up to that point they'd had his number, with five goals on 36 shots.
Near the end of extra time, over the boards came the trio of Lazar, Spencer Foo and Rob Hamilton, and into the net went the puck.
"We were patient," said Lazar. "(Foo) made a great play, he gave me the puck at full speed. I got a step on their guy, was able to wait out the goalie and find some net."
Stockton has 31 games left, which means 62 points out there for the taking. If last season's numbers hold true once again, the Heat will need to earn 42 of them to reach the playoffs.
No doubt the club will turn to their leaders to make that climb.
They'll look to players such as Lazar and Rychel, who are tied for the team lead with 31 points ahead of this week's set at Bakersfield, to Buddy Robinson, who owns the longest active scoring streak in the AHL at 10 games, to Alan Quine, who netted his second hat-trick of the season this past week and has five points since Jan. 9 with four goals and an assist.
The Heat have their work cut out for them as the playoff race grows hotter - but with the right pieces stepping up at the right time, Stockton is very much still in it.
- The Heat hit the road after closing out their five-game homestand with eight of the team's next 11 games away from Stockton Arena. The Heat are 9-8-1-0 in road games this season.
- Stockton enters Wednesday's game against Bakersfield with the best powerplay in the Pacific Division, clicking at 21.8% (31-for-142).
- Stockton has 12 of their next 15 games against Pacific Division opponents. The three outside of divisional play come against the Texas Stars (twice) and San Antonio Rampage, fourth and sixth in the Central Division, respectively.
- Jon Gillies had one of his best games of the season Sunday in San Jose, making 31 stops in a 2-1 loss against the Barracuda at the SAP Center.
- Buddy Robinson's scoring streak reached 10 games with his powerplay tally at San Jose. He is now up to 13 points (4g,9a) in that span.
- Defenceman Rob Hamilton has had a strong stretch of play of late, entering this week's slate with nine points (3g,6a) and a plus-3 rating over Stockton's last six games.
"He's been very good. He's consistent. He plays different special teams, he's a 5-on-5 presence all the time. He's an overtime killer. He's found ways to use his speed and his strength, that combo of getting into the open ice and driving, he did exactly that (Saturday) night. He had a little time and space, wound it up, got his feet going, went wide, drove the (defenceman) and then cut to the far post, waited out the goaltender and put it up top. It was a really nice play." - Head coach Cail MacLean on Curtis Lazar's game-winner
"He plays the right way. He's not here cheating the game and getting offensive opportunities as a result. He's playing at both ends and he's playing hard. He's physical. He's doing the things he needs to do at the next level." - MacLean on Lazar's play with the Heat
"Alan had a strong game. He's feeling it with the puck right now. He made some really good plays. He's able to generate from tight areas and find people through traffic, in traffic. Strong game from him. Should've been enough to win." - MacLean on Alan Quine's hat trick.
"Started out in the first period getting a few, then in the third period (Glenn Gawdin) made a nice play to me, I had a wide open net. I was fortunate to get those three, but a loss trumps that for sure." - Quine on his hat-trick.