It was a big week for the Stockton Heat, with three home games on the docket and the club pushing to land a playoff spot.
The Milwaukee Admirals were first to come to town for a midweek clash with the Heat in Stockton on Wednesday night.
The two pretty evenly matched teams would result in the special teams being magnified in the contest. The Heat got on the board first thanks to a beautiful passing play resulting in a one-time from Hunter Shinkaruk on the powerplay.
However, Milwaukee would respond with a powerplay goal of their own to tie the game up in the second. Stockton would regain the lead with Oliver Kylington's powerplay goal in the third off a terrific play from Brett Pollock who was able to no-look a pass to Kylington across the ice.
Moments later though, the Heat powerplay was out there again looking to increase their lead, but instead a costly turnover in their own zone resulted in a quick two-on-one in tight to Jon Gillies, playing in his first game back with the Heat, that the goalie had no chance on.
"I liked our powerplay up until the mistake that was made that allowed them to score the game-tying goal," Huska said. "I thought we moved the puck around well and scored two nice goals. I thought the penalty kill was good too. All in all, I thought our special teams did a pretty good job tonight with the exception, as I said, with the goal against."
There was still a chance for two points but Milwaukee goalie Anders Lindback made four crucial saves in overtime and kept both Heat shooters in the shootout at bay in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Admirals.
The Heat were back in action on Friday, hosting the Tucson Roadrunners in the first of a two-game, back-to-back set. A revamped Tucson roster was on display in Friday's meeting, as recently acquired Carter Camper from the Cleveland Monsters was involved in all three Tucson goals, one per period, and the Heat failed to sneak one past Tucson netminder Hunter Miska on Friday night in the 3-0 shutout loss.
"I go back to the soft puck play," Huska said. "In these situations, we need more. We need guys to raise their levels to get it done. That is a good hockey team over there, but I think we can be better out there. They were the better team. We gave them far too much room to skate, particularly early in the game and I thought we were guilty of soft plays.
"Against good hockey teams you can't play that way if you want to have success."
It was the second time this season the Heat have been shutout and just the third time ever the Heat were shutout on home ice.
The lone positive in the game was that Heat captain Rod Pelley suited up in his 800th professional game, having played 256 NHL games with the New Jersey Devils and Anaheim Ducks to go along with 544 AHL games with the Devils and Ducks affiliates, and now the Stockton Heat.
"I think when the announcer did a little announcement about my 800th there, I took a second to think about it," Pelley said. "To see my family up there in the stands, and maybe for a split second, I took some in, but ultimately coming into tonight I wanted two points.
"That would have been the ending I wanted."
The Heat knew that Saturday's matchup was of supreme importance and needed a much better effort than Friday's game. Unfortunately though, the puck luck continued early on for Tucson as a bouncing puck was corralled in the slot and shot over Gillies' shoulder to put Tucson on the board.
Despite outshooting the Roadrunners 8-5, it would be the physicality that swung a bit of momentum back to the home club. With Rasmus Andersson being triple teamed during a skirmish by the bench, the Heat came to his aid, none more than Luke Gazdic who had to be restrained while trying to help his teammate.
While the resulting penalties were just matching minors handed out to Andersson and Tucson's Ryan MacInnis, seeing the Heat alternate captain try and stand up for his teammate seemed to push the boys on the bench.
"That's a big thing that makes this group special," Heat forward Spencer Foo said. "We have a lot of skill up front but then we have a lot of guys who are willing to do that for their teammates. Obviously Gazdic has been a great example of that all year, and it doesn't only affect our bench but I think it affects the other team's bench a little bit too because they have that in the back of their heads that if they do anything stupid out there, they have the big guys coming after them."
Finally in the second period the shift took place as Mike McMurtry set up a play toward the net, which involved Dalton Prout centering the puck from behind the Tucson net to Foo, who popped in his 19th goal of the season.
That ended a stretch of 103:43 seconds of shutout hockey for the Heat. It was a play though where it drew some positive reinforcement from his coach.
"A lot of people could learn from [Foo] but [because he goes to the uncomfortable areas on the ice] that is why he scores goals," Huska said. "If you want to be a good goal-scorer you have to have some instincts and you have to have some courage and Spencer definitely has the courage part."
The plucky winger knew that to get the Heat out of their scoring slump, they'd need to score some of those greasy goals.
"In games like this when it's just kind of a grind out there, bodies are everywhere, guys are just trying to get pucks on net," Foo said. "That's the kind of goals that normally go in these types of games and that's just going to continue.
"Those are huge goals."
It was looking like another overtime game on Saturday night but Tucson surprised the Heat with a late tally in the third to come away with the 2-1 win over Stockton, and put the pressure on the Heat heading into a stretch where seven of their remaining 11 games come on the road.
It starts this week with the Heat heading north of the border and to Winnipeg to take on the Manitoba Moose on Thursday and Saturday.
With the Heat sitting a few percentage points back of the fourth placed Texas Stars and out of a playoff spot, this week's games are eerily similar to the Heat's last trip to Manitoba back in March of 2016.
Trying to climb into a playoff spot back then, the Heat couldn't beat Connor Hellebuyck as Manitoba threw a crushing blow to the Heat's playoff chances.
A lot has changed since then though, as the Heat have five players from that Manitoba trip in 2016 on the roster today in Kylington, Shinkaruk, Morgan Klimchuk, Austin Carroll and Emile Poirier.
Brett Pollock had posted a career-best five-game point streak with 2 goals and 3 assists that ended on Friday. Pollock is one of four players to record a five-game (or more) point streak for the Heat this season (Mangiapane, Jankowski & Foo)
Tyler Wotherspoon recorded his 100th professional point on Wednesday against Milwaukee
Stockton completed two more season series this past week, going 0-1-1 vs. Milwaukee this season and 4-4-0-0 against Tucson
"I think our lines playing well. [Colin Smith] and [Spencer Foo] are two great forwards, they create a lot of room and they make plays with the puck and on the power play, it's a matter of execution." - Brett Pollock on what's has contributed to his recent successes
"Looking at the big picture, it's an accomplishment that I'm proud of, but at the end of the day there's a lot of people to thank. It feels like it has flown by when you take a bit of time to sit there and think about it, but there's some ups and downs and it's just apart of the game. It's my passion and I hope to play some more." - Rod Pelley on playing in his 800th professional game on Friday night
"I'm sure to him it's reflecting back on him, maybe he's not going to be happy about tonight because he is a guy that is all about team and doesn't really care much about himself or any accomplishments or milestones that he might hit. You don't play as long as he has unless you are durable and you take care of yourself away from the rink and if you are a really good person, a hard-working guy and that's what Rod is and that's why teams want to have him around." - Ryan Huska on Rod Pelley's 800th game
"This was a night where I thought we were engaged for the full 60 minutes. It's one of those nights where you feel like maybe at the end of the night we deserved to get in a situation to get a point out of this one, or a chance to fight for an extra point. This time of the year it is a tough one to swallow, but the effort and how we competed and were engaged was at a high level." - Ryan Huska on Saturday night's effort compared to Friday's effort vs. Tucson