The Stockton Heat kicked off the new year in fine fashion, picking up a pair of wins in their first two games in 2017.
The Heat outscored their opponents 7-2 and were perfect on the penalty kill, denying the Tucson Roadrunners and the Milwaukee Admirals on a combined nine power plays.
"Our penalty kill was huge for us. We've been good for most of the year, second or third place in the league in penalty killing, but really took a dive here lately," defenceman Keith Aulie noted. "For us to get that on the right track again and build confidence with that is huge. We did a lot of work on it this week, so it's nice to see the results pay off."
On Friday, Mark Jankowski played the hero in a 3-2 overtime win over the Roadrunners. The rookie netted the game-winner at the 1:04 mark of the extra frame, tipping Morgan Klimchuk's shot past the goaltender.
"It's a huge weight off the shoulders for the whole team. Obviously, we were in a little bit of a losing skid there and we needed a greasy one like that to get us out of it," Jankowski said afterwards.
"(Kenney Morrison) had the puck and had great patience, held on and gave it to (Klimchuk) and I got the chance to beat my guy to the net. (Klimchuk) is a great player with great vision and he saw me and put it to the net. I just tried to tip it. Luckily, it found a hole and went in."
Jamie Devane opened the scoring in the first period but Tucson struck twice, off the sticks of Kyle Wood and Christian Dvorak, to give the Roadrunners a 2-1 lead heading into the third period.
Aulie tied the game with his first goal of the season at 6:04 of the third frame, one-timing a rebound past goaltender Adin Hill.
"It was nice to get one," he said afterwards. "If you're going to choose a goal, you want it to be a timely one like that to get us back in the game. I looked up and saw quite a bit of net and I just wanted to make sure I got it there."
Goaltender Jon Gillies made 31 saves on the 33 shots he faced.
"I thought Jon was excellent. It was his best game in quite a while and we're going to need more efforts like that from him moving forward," head coach Ryan Huska stated.
Gillies was slated to be back in net on Saturday when the Heat hosted the Admirals but became ill during warm-up. David Rittch was called upon on short notice and the Czech netminder turned in one of his best performances of the season.
Rittich, who signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Flames on Jun. 13, 2016, turned aside all 35 shots he faced and collected his fourth shutout of the year.
"It was one of those nights where David had to get thrown into a game he wasn't expecting, making his performance that much more special the way he showed up," Huska lauded.
"Knowing the support that you have from your goaltender is great," forward Austin Carroll added. "If you make a little mistake, (David Rittich) is there for you. The players want to play for him and he was playing for us ... He was unreal."
In 13 appearances this year, Rittich boasts a 1.81 GAA, which ranks third in the AHL, and a .936 save percentage, also third in the league. His four shutouts are second only to San Jose's Troy Grosenick.
With Saturday's win, Rittich also takes over the all-time team-lead in shutouts, passing Gillies.
"It's a fantastic feeling. It was good for us as a team because we need to win after going winless in five games there. We must be better and the last two nights we have been," Rittich said afterwards, deflecting praise to his teammates.
"My guys were so good in front of me tonight. They did a great job clearing rebounds and clearing screens. They blocked shots and helped me so much. I need to say thank you to them."
Rittich's performance was supported by goals from Carroll, Emile Poirier (2) and Matt Frattin.
Poirier, who was a healthy scratch on Friday, also chipped in with an assist. He and his linemates, Carroll and Ryan Lomberg, combined for five points in the victory.
"I think our line did a great job," he noted. "We battled hard while keeping our game simple and did good work tonight. Getting in front of the net and battling hard down low was the game plan and the guys did an excellent job."
The Heat now sit third in the American Hockey League's Pacific Division with a .645 winning percentage in 31 games. They trail Ontario (.690) and San Jose (.655) in the division.
Stockton is back in action on Wednesday when they travel to San Diego to face the Gulls. They will wrap up the week with stops in Bakersfield on Friday and San Jose on Saturday.