Without hyperbole, every game the Stockton Heat play this week are must-wins.
Sitting outside the American Hockey League postseason picture with three regular season skates remaining, they still have hope.
They must win out their week, which features a stop in Bakersfield on Tuesday and a home-and-home set against the San Jose Barracuda on the weekend.
The Heat are also relying on the out of town scoreboard to sway in their favor.
The Charlotte Checkers must fail to collect a point in their final two games of the 2015-16 campaign, both coming this weekend in Lake Erie.
If these two scenarios coalesce, the Heat will find themselves in the AHL Playoffs.
Even with their playoff hopes hanging precariously in the balance, the Heat have given a handful of rookies the chance to showcase themselves in their most crucial stretch of games this season.
After their respective seasons came to a close, Stockton brought in forwards Mark Jankowski and Brett Pollock and goaltender Nick Schneider on amateur try-outs, bolstering a roster that saw plenty of skaters head north to join a banged-up Calgary Flames squad and giving the three a chance to acclimatize themselves to the AHL.
Stockton head coach Ryan Huska was far from obligated to hand over heaps of playing time to them but he placed his trust in the trio, playing them in a variety of situations and allowing them to gain an understanding of what it takes to succeed at the next level.
The benefits to this are twofold.
In order for Jankowski, Pollock and Schneider to make the necessary strides in their development, it is essential they receive adequate playing time. That is self-explanatory. One can only learn so much from practicing.
But handing over the metaphorical reins to the three, letting them go out and make mistakes as they learn, gives Huska and the Flames an idea of what kind of prospects they are working with.
As Flames general manager Brad Treliving noted in his post-season address on Monday, there is a vast difference in player evaluation depending on the circumstance.
Seeing how the three respond in critical situations provides a better read than having them playing in meaningless contests.
“Those are dangerous evaluation games when there’s zero on the line,” was his response when asked about the Flames strong play down the stretch.
“You … have to measure that evaluation period in terms of where we were in the standings, how little those games meant in terms of … there’s a difference of the games in February when things are on the line and what’s going to happen on Wednesday … You take that into consideration.”
Despite the gravity of the situation in Stockton, Jankowski, Pollock and Schneider have responded in a positive fashion.
Since signing an entry-level contract with the Flames and heading to Stockton, Jankowski has dressed for five games with the Heat. He has eight shots on net, one goal and four points in that span.
“I thought [Mark Jankowski] was really good and built some chemistry with Drew [Shore] and Turner [Elson] almost immediately,” Huska noted after Jankowski’s debut on Apr. 1. “You never know what to expect from a young player in his first game, but he played well. He has some things that he definitely needs to work on with us, but for a first impression it was very impressive.”
After his Edmonton Oil Kings were knocked out of the Western Hockey League playoffs, Pollock made the two and a half hour flight to Northern California to get his first taste of the AHL.
Since then, he has played two games in Heat silks and scored his first professional goal in his second appearance.
“[Tyler] Wotherspoon made a great pass and I just tried to get as much on it as I could. Fortunately, it ended up sneaking in and I’ll definitely take it,” Pollock said after netting the milestone marker.
“After playing my first game and getting a little taste of the pro game [on Saturday], I was excited to be back in the lineup … It was important for me to show I had more. I got a little bit of an idea of the speed and the size of the guys at this level in the first game, so my nerves were a little better [on Sunday]. I was happy with how it went.”
Schneider’s WHL season came to a dramatic end in a final, tie-breaking tilt with Pollock’s Oil Kings in the regular season.
With both teams dead even at the end of the regular season, the league had them play a winner-take-all game for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Edmonton took the deciding game by a score of 6-4 and Schneider packed up his gear to head to Stockton.
The 18-year-old got his first crack in net on Mar. 30, when he faced 37 shots in a 4-2 loss to the San Diego Gulls.
“I was pretty nervous at the start, but the guys were great and encouraged me throughout the game,” Schneider stated afterwards. “The whole team went out of their way to give me taps on the pads and stuff like that. It was nice to get the first start out of the way.”
He was back in net two nights later, picking up his first professional victory when he made 31 saves on 33 shots in a 3-2 win over the Ontario Reign.
“It’s a great feeling. It’s something you dream about growing up and I’m happy that it came tonight,” he told StocktonHeat.com post-game. “The guys in front of me deserve a lot of credit for the way they battled, but it’s a good feeling for sure and something I’ll never forget.”
The Heat have been hit hard by injuries in net this season, with eight goaltenders dressing for games over the course of the year, and Schneider looks to be their go-to guy in the blue paint for the foreseeable future.
While he has only started six professional games in his young career, he has already earned the trust of the skaters in front of him.
“[Nick Schneider] is a great goalie,” Turner Elson told the team’s website. “He’s truly one of the best I’ve seen at handling the puck behind the net. His ability with the puck really makes it seem like we have an extra defenceman back there. We all were talking about how much we loved having him play the puck like that.”