There's 'character wins,' then there's what the Heat found a way to pull off Saturday night in the desert to climb to first place in the Pacific.
Missing leading goal-scorer Byron Froese and points leader Alan Quine, facing the division's top team, a club that had given Stockton fits for most of the season, in its own barn with the boost of NHL All-Star Darcy Kuemper between the pipes, and coming off a loss Friday to the same team, the Heat looked to find a way muster up two points in the desert.
The result? A 4-1 win over Tucson, tallying three of a possible four points over the weekend to earn a tie for the top spot in the Pacific Division.
"I think it shows that the team's got some good resilience," said Heat head coach Cail MacLean following the decisive win to punctuate the weekend. "We really had to battle (Friday) to get that one point, fight through some adversity. Then to come back the next night and bring the necessary emotional energy to grind this one out, it was really big."
They don't come much bigger, and this one was no gift.
The short-handed Heat trailed 1-0 through 40 minutes of action, a troublesome sign when facing the Roadrunners. The odds were stacked against Stockton, as Tucson entered the game 22-0-0-1 on the year when leading through two periods. The Roadrunners were 5-0 on the year when scoring first against the Heat in particular and were ranked second in the AHL with a .813 point percentage when gaining the 1-0 lead. And have we mentioned Tucson had a NHL All-Star in net?
With the third period underway, the smallest player on the Stockton roster came up biggest.
Matthew Phillips picked a corner on the power play 4:11 into the third, his first goal since returning from injury that forced him out of action for a 16-game span. On even footing, it was all Stockton from there.
Austin Czarnik lit the lamp 3:24 later, also on the man-advantage, his fourth game-winner of the season to draw even with Luke Philp for the team lead. The Heat then poured in a pair of empty-netters, Adam Ruzicka and Glenn Gawdin connecting on the yawning cage, to punctuate the comeback, the club's first regulation win over Tucson this season.
"We showed our resilience tonight," said Czarnik, harping on the quality that has guided Stockton's success all season. "The team knew what we had at hand and we took over in the third. Special teams was a big part of tonight and we won that battle. We're happy to come out with three out of four points."
As the forward noted, special teams tilted in Stockton's favor both games this weekend. The Heat connected on three of nine trips to the man-advantage while limiting Tucson to just 2-for-15, including nine kills on 10 Roadrunner power plays Friday. Defenceman Corey Schueneman recorded four points over the weekend with a goal and three helpers, highlighted by a three-point night Saturday. Jon Gillies pitched in yeoman's work between the pipes, turning away 61 of 65 shots faced in the clash for the top spot in the division.
With 18 games remaining, the Heat have the inside track with 65 points and a game in hand on Tucson, who completed the weekend tied with Stockton for the top spot in the Pacific. Even with the recent success, the margin for error remains razor-thin - only seven points separating first from fifth in the division.
The whole roster, top to bottom, will have to continue elevating their game as runway lessens and playoffs approach. They'll have to keep finding a way, even through adversity, to keep adding points.
At least through 50 games, there's no reason to believe they won't.
- Defenceman Corey Schueneman has amassed nine points (2g,7a) in nine games since Brandon Davidson's call-up to Calgary.
- Glenn Gawdin found his way onto the score sheet in both games since returning from his first NHL recall, registering three points (1g,2a) over the weekend.
- Stockton is one of only four teams in the AHL - joined by the Belleville Senators, Milwaukee Admirals and Tucson Roadrunners - with five players who have scored 15 or more goals on the season.
- The Heat have earned points in three consecutive games against Tucson after being held without a point in the two prior contests.
- Over the last two weeks, Stockton is 8-for-26 (30.8-percent) on the power play and 32-for-34 (94.1-percent) on the penalty kill.
THEY SAID IT
"We've talked about it all year long, they're a good bunch of people. They care about each other, they take care of each other. It starts from the top down, from our captain Byron Froese. The guys stepped up for him because he's such a good leader. They know how much he cares about this team. You saw some of the effort that accumulated over these two games. It's pretty good to see that these guys have the character and bonding that they do have, and it bodes well moving forward." - MacLean on the character of Stockton's team
"It's big. There's still time to go, and it's a marathon, not a sprint. We want to make sure we worry about the right things as opposed to the standings. But at the same time, just as a feather in the cap for these guys who have worked really hard, guys who have stepped into larger roles and young guys that are maturing, guys that have done those little things like blocking shots on the penalty kill and finding ways to grind things out when our lineup has been a little bit different. With guys getting called up and new guys in the fold, it's just a nice feather in the cap for the team right now to be able to climb (to first place). Now we have to settle in, work hard, maintain it and push forward." - MacLean on reaching first place with three of a possible four points over the weekend
"It's something to build off of, for sure. We're a confident bunch. We're handling a little bit of adversity right now with injuries but everybody's stepping up, playing the way they need to play. We'll keep trying to build on this and get ready to go for next weekend." - Czarnik on the strong weekend
"First place on the line, any of the games down the stretch are huge for us. To have guys out of the lineup and other guys step up, it's huge for us. It shows the resiliency and the character of the group that we have." - Schueneman on the group effort in Tucson
"Personally, I love it. I like to play as much I can. It's comforting knowing they're going to put me out there and that they're able to trust me. I'm going to take everything I can and be as good as I can for them." - Schueneman on taking on a larger workload for Stockton