As things began to ramp up in March, the race to be one of the top four in the AHL's Pacific Division got tighter, as the Heat experienced firsthand this wee
It started Wednesday with a pivotal midweek clash between the Heat and Ontario Reign (Los Angeles Kings affiliate).
With the Reign nipping at the Heat's heels for the fourth and final playoff spot, there was a lot on the line. And, just as the Heat had seen the previous two games, the visitors got off to an early lead
Despite call-up goaltender Ryan Faragher making 34 saves on 36 shots, Ontario would knock the Heat momentarily out of a playoff spot with the 3-1 win over Stockton.
"They were the better team in the first two periods for sure," Heat coach Ryan Huska said. "We played into them a little bit, where we had too many turnovers. At times we allowed the game to stay in front of their defencemen and we made it an easier night on them. The third period we started to play the right way, where we used some of our speed to get the upper hand and shift the play."
Heat forward Brett Pollock made the play that pulled the Heat within one as his centering feed was pushed by goalie Cal Petersen back to the slot and onto the stick of Ryan Lomberg, who roofed his sixth goal of the season over the goalie's glove hand.
The Heat couldn't find the tying goal, despite outshooting Ontario 18-3 in the final period. Ontario's third goal was an empty-netter.
"I think we've been spotting teams leads lately and we can't be doing that," Pollock said. "I think we responded well and had some good chances. I just think bearing down on those chances, it's a different game."
And that's what the Heat were hoping for when they took on the seventh-place Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton Oilers affiliate) Friday for the final time this season.
Once again, the Heat saw the opposition get on the board first.
Faragher stood tall again in this contest to keep the Heat within striking distance and in the final two minutes of the second period, Colin Smith fired a pass up to the right-wing boards, where Pollock made a key play around a defender with a light touch of the puck to himself before setting up Spencer Foo for the tip past Condors goalie Laurent Brossoit.
And Smith wasn't done.
A last-ditch effort to centre the puck before time expired in the period was redirected back to the hands of the Heat centre, who ripped a low shot past Brossoit to shock the home crowd and take a 2-1 lead with 1.2 seconds remaining in the period.
"I knew there was not a lot of time left," Smith said. "I tried to make a play up front and it got blocked, and then just tried to put it on net.
"To get two goals bang-bang there was huge."
After a practice day on Saturday, the Heat were ready to take on the Cleveland Monsters at home, looking to try and build off their strong finish on Friday as they played league's worst team.
For Huska, it was critical his team not overlook the Monsters, who were decimated by the trade deadline and are relying on a few more ECHL call-ups than average.
Fortunately, the Heat bucked that trend of allowing the first goal and got off to a good start thanks to a terrific rush into the offensive zone that found forward Mike McMurtry in some space.
"I think I've been getting some chances the last few games and it just wasn't getting the right bounce at the right time," McMurtry said. "(Hunter Shinkaruk) made a really nice pass to me and I was able to step into it and it worked. I'm playing with (Morgan Klimchuk) and (Shinkaruk), two good players, and I had some chances and tonight I sort of caught some breaks."
In the second, Olympic bronze medallist Cody Goloubef would score his first goal with the Heat since returning from the Pyeongchang Games, followed by Pollock, who increased his career-best point streak to four games, and a goal-of-the-year candidate by Rasmus Andersson.
The defenceman went coast-to-coast, past a Cleveland forward in the neutral zone, past a Monsters defender in the offensive zone and toe dragged around the goalie for his eighth goal of the season.
Two empty-netters later in the third period, and the Heat captured the 6-2 win and recaptured their playoff spot.
Next up is a Wednesday night clash with the Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville Predators affiliate) followed by a pair of games on Friday and Saturday against the top team in the Pacific, the Tucson Roadrunners (Arizona Coyotes affiliate).
- Pollock has a career-best four-game point streak with two goals and two assists.
- Faragher has now made five starts for the Heat since both Mason McDonald and Tyler Parsons went down with injury and is 4-1-0, having allowed two goals or fewer in each of his starts.
- Oliver Kylington and Klimchuk each recorded their eighth multi-point games of the season on Sunday vs. Cleveland.
- The Heat have seven home games and seven road games remaining on the schedule.
- The AHL playoffs will see the top four teams in the Pacific Division (based on point percentage) make the postseason, with the first seed playing the fourth seed and second seed playing the third seed in a divisional setting. Then onto the Pacific Division final, then to the Western Conference final playing the Central Division winner and then to the Calder Cup final against the Eastern Conference champion.
"Working with (Heat Goaltending Coach Colin Zulianello) almost every day during practice or pregame skate is helpful. We work on the simple things and I try and bring hat to my game, and I try and be as simple as I can. A few times the puck was bouncing around and I was scrambling a little more than usual and from hard work and the guys battling we were able to get the win." - Faragher on working to improve
"Every game counts now and we are really tight with Ontario and Texas. Every point counts, and every win counts and we have to make the most of it here over the last 14 games and win as many games as we can." - Andersson on the importance of building off of the Heat wins in back-to-back games
"I think he has come a long way. (Pollock) has done a really good job at taking some of the criticism that people have had on him and working to improve him game. He has earned some trust from our coaching staff and I think his teammates enjoy having him around. He is confident right now and he continues to contribute for us." - Huska on Pollock's improvement over the course of the year
"Any time you can contribute in any way it feels good. Especially now. I have tried to work hard all year to get this opportunity, and coach Huska has given me some more ice time now and it is working out well and I feel good and I have to continue building and continuing to get better." - Pollock on his four-game point streak