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Stockton turning up the Heat as AHL season grinds on

 

Kylington

One-third of the way into the 2016-17 American Hockey League (AHL) season, the Stockton Heat has undergone a major turnaround in the Pacific Division standings.

The Heat, the AHL affiliate of the NHL’s Calgary Flames, finished 32-32-2-2 in the division’s inaugural 2015-16 season. The team’s .500 finish was not high enough to qualify for the Calder Cup playoffs.

The Heat is leading the division this season.

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Stockton improved to 16-6-1-1 after capturing the opening three games of a five-game road swing in mid-December. Winning on the road was a major challenge last season as the Heat managed to secure just 10 road wins on its 68-game schedule.

The Northern California-based team already has notched seven road wins this season. The Heat has won games in some pretty inhospitable places.

Stockton defeated the host Ontario Reign 5-4 on Dec. 14 in front of 6,251 fans to face off its current road trip and swept the host San Diego Gulls in a weekend set Dec. 16-17 in front of crowds of 8,091 and 9,440.

The three consecutive road wins set a new team record.

Ontario and San Diego finished first and second, respectively, in last season’s division standings. They also top the division in average home attendance. Stockton head coach Ryan Huska called the two venues “intimidating” places to play in.

“These wins right now at this time of the year are very important for us,” Huska explained. “If you can find a way to grind out some points on the road, it gives you an opportunity to create a little separation from the pack in the standings.

“I think this group of guys has a belief that they can win. Everyone believes in each other. When you have that belief that you can win every night, it doesn’t matter where you’re playing.”

Stockton’s turnaround season is big news for the Flames, which looks to benefit in both the short term and long term from talent being developed by the Heat.

Stockton hopes to stay hot when it returns home to host the Tucson Roadrunners on Dec. 28 to start a four-game home stand that spills over into the 2017 calendar year.

The Heat has collected points in eight of its last 10 games (7-2-0-1) to solidify its first place standing. The team has found ways to win despite facing adverse conditions.

Rookie goaltender Jon Gillies stopped 92 of 96 shots he faced (.958 save percentage) in the two most recent games in San Diego. He stopped 44 shots in the Heat’s 5-3 win on Dec. 16 to set a personal pro record. He then established a new team record by making 48 saves the next night in posting a 3-1 victory.

The 22-year-old Concord, N.H., native stopped the first 48 shots he faced in the Dec. 17 contest before the Gulls snapped his shutout bid on a goal by Keaton Thompson with just 20 seconds left in the game.

Gillies earned first star honors in the game as well as his team-leading ninth win. He improved to 3-0-0 against the Gulls this season.

The Stockton netminder, who presents an imposing figure between the pipes at six feet, six inches tall and 225 pounds, kept his finger plugged into the dike despite the Heat being out-shot 25-3 in the final period.

“On the second night of a back-to-back as a goalie, as long as your legs aren’t heavy you’re able to get into the rhythm a lot faster,” explained Gillies, who guided Providence College to the school’s first NCAA Division I championship in 2015. “We came out and we jumped on them early, which is what we’ve been doing lately, but we knew they were going to have a push back. When that comes, it’s my job to stand up to them.

“It’s my job to stop the puck. We fought hard and we won as a team. That’s all I really care about.”

Gillies improved his season record to 9-3-2 with a 2.71 goals-against average, one shutout and .916 save percentage following the two-game sweep in San Diego. He faced off the season’s opening three games with a 1.62 GAA and .944 save percentage to earn recognition as the Flames’ prospect of the week.

A third-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft by the Flames, Gillies played three seasons with Providence before turning pro with the Heat. He posted 60 wins and 13 regular season shutouts with the Friars. He was a model of consistency between the pipes with yearly goals-against average marks of 2.08, 2.16 and 2.01. He was particularly stingy with a cumulative .931 save percentage.

The memory of winning an NCAA title is something the Heat netminder cherishes.

“We weren’t expected to make any noise but our team came together at the right time,” Gillies said. “It was a surreal feeling, especially in college where you’re not getting paid, there’s no compensation, you’re doing it for the love of your team and your teammates, doing it for the love of the game. I’ll never forget it.”

However, Gillies met with misfortune during his first season in Stockton. He underwent season-ending hip surgery to correct a lingering prior injury just seven games into the season. He turned in a 2-3-1 record with a 2.31 GAA and .920 save percentage after starting the season 2-0-1 with a 1.64 GAA and .944 save percentage.

Gillies_save

The rest of the 2015-16 season was spent in rehabilitation, including three months in Calgary.

“I feel better than before,” Gillies noted. “It was a long process, but it was good.”

Now healthy again, he’s working on improving his consistency,

“I want to give whatever team I’m playing for a chance to win,” Gillies said. “That’s your job as a goalie.”

“Jon’s been great for us,” Huska noted. “He’s given us a chance to win when he’s in the net. He looks confident in the net and that’s something we’d like to see here.”

Gillies said road wins are not to be underestimated.

“You have to be able to win on the road at any level if you want to be successful,” he said,.

But Gillies isn’t standing on his head by himself. The Heat is carrying three goaltenders on its roster this season. Fellow rookie David Rittich sported a 6-3-0 record, 1.65 GAA and .941 save percentage in 10 outings while veteran Tom McCollom had appeared in one game with Stockton this season with a 1.50 GAA and .950 save percentage.

Defense has been a big focus this season for the Heat.

Rasmus Andersson leads the team’s blue-liners with 16 points in 25 games while fellow Swede Oliver Kylington (pictured top) has 13 points in 25 games.

Center Linden Vey leads the team with 22 points in 20 games, followed by left wing Andrew Mangiapane with 20 points in 24 games. Left wing Morgan Klimchuk has 18 points in 24 games while center Mark Jankowski has 18 points in 22 games.

A native of Stockholm, Kylington, 19, was among the youngest players in the AHL last season and remains so this season. He recently was selected to play for Team Sweden at the 2017 World Junior Championship (Dec. 26-Jan. 5) in Toronto and Montreal.

“It’s nice to be called and to get a chance to play,” Kylington explained. “It’s not good to miss games here, as of course, I want to help us win. But it’s an honor to play for Team Sweden and try and win gold and take it back to Sweden.”

Jankowski, another Providence College product, is in his second year with Stockton. A first round pick by the Flames in the 2012 draft (21st overall), the six-foot-four, 200-pound center had his first call-up to the NHL parent club earlier this season.

Gillies, Jankowski and Kylington are all regarded top prospects for Calgary.

Defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon returned to the Heat lineup on Dec. 17 after a recent call-up to Calgary. Following the win that night over the Gulls, Wotherspoon quickly returned to the Flames for an ensuing NHL game in Arizona. Wotherspoon appeared in 11 NHL games last season; he’s appeared in 20 games for Stockton this season.

Overall, five players have suited up for both the Heat and the Flames in 2016-17.

Player of the Month

Bakersfield right wing Taylor Beck earned honors as the CCM/AHL Player of the Month for November after collecting 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in nine games during the month. He is the first Condors player to receive the award.

“It was a very cool feeling,” Beck said. “Obviously, I owe a lot to my teammates. It was a pretty good month. I would have liked a few more wins along the way. But we’re certainly coming along now. It’s a great team effort.”

Taylor_Beck2

At the time of the award, the 25-year-old native of St. Catherines, Ont., had notched five multi-point games with Bakersfield. He matched a career high with four points (one goal, three assists) in a 5-3 2 win over the Texas Stars on Nov. 5.

Beck’s scoring prowess continued into December as he tacked on 11 points in five games before receiving his second call-up this season to Edmonton on Dec. 17. At the time of his second call-up to the Oilers, he led the AHL in scoring with 30 points (nine goals, 21 assists) in 19 games.

Beck has appeared in 89 career NHL games with Nashville, Edmonton and the New York Islanders. He has played in 19 games for Bakersfield this season and two with Edmonton.

“It was fun — it was a great experience being up there (in the NHL),” explained Beck, who made his AHL debut with the Milwaukee Admirals in 2010-11 and played 62 NHL games with Nashville in 2014-15. “Hopefully, a few (more) of us can get up there soon, too.”

Beck collected 16 goals and 33 points in 46 games with the AHL Bridgeport Sound Tigers last season. He dialed up 17 goals and 49 points in 2013-14 with Milwaukee.

Player of the Week

San Jose goaltender Troy Grosenick was selected at the CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Dec. 11 after making 62 stops in a trio of games after returning to the lineup after being sidelined with an injury for two weeks.

Included in the three games were identical back-to-back 3-0 shutouts wins against visiting San Diego on Dec. 10-11. He ended the week hot having allowed a goal in 181:36.

Grosenick

The 27-year-old Brookfield, Wis., native made 15 saves in the Dec. 10 victory against the Gulls and made 26 saves the next day to record his league-leading fourth shutout. At the time of his award, he had compiled a 5-4-1 record with the Barracuda with a 1.98 GAA and .928 save percentage.

Grosenick continued his hot play by making 32 saves to record his third consecutive shutout in 5-0 shutout win over Bakersfield on Dec. 17.

Eight is great

The Gulls cobbled together a franchise-record eight-game winning streak from Nov. 11 to Dec. 2. The streak began with a 3-2 win over the visiting Manitoba Moose and ended with a 3-2 shootout win at Stockton, Included were two wins each over the Moose and Barracuda and single wins against Bakersfield, Ontario, Tucson and Stockton.

The Gulls won five games in regulation, one in overtime and two in a shootout. The streak ended Dec. 3 with a 4-0 loss in Stockton.

The 16-point explosion rocketed the San Diego team to second place in the Pacific Division standings with a 10-5-1 record.

“We had dug ourselves into a hole early in the season and obviously getting the wins were huge,” San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins explained.

The Gulls have since gone 1-6 in their last seven games (after matching up against Grosenick and Gillies in back-to-back weekend series) to fall to 11-11-1. The Gulls had a record franchise-tying six-game home winning streak snapped in a 3-2 loss to visiting Ontario on Dec. 13.

During the eight-game win streak, Corey Tropp potted two game-winning goals, while Brandon Montour, Stefan Noesen, Zac Larraza, Kalle Kossila, Kevin Roy and Nick Sorenson each tallied game-winners. Dustin Tokarski picked up five wins in the net and Matt Hackett recorded two wins between the pipes.

Five of the eight wins came by one-goal margins, including three beyond regulation play.

“I think the rivalries in this league are growing,” Eakins noted. “That is the great about this division. As these guys develop, the rivalries will only get stronger.”

Making the grade

Noesen, a right wing/center, received a call-up to the parent Ducks on Dec. 7 and scored his first goal in a 6-5 shootout victory against the visiting Carolina Hurricanes later that evening.

Originally a first-round draft pick (21st overall) by the Ottawa Senators in 2011, the 23-year-old Texas native had played in two previous career games with Anaheim. He made his NHL debut on April 3, 2015, after battling through a potentially career-ending ACL and MCL injuries suffered early in the 2013-14 with the team’s AHL affiliate, then in Norfolk, Va.

Last season in San Diego, he collected 10 goals and 32 points in 65 games; he had three goals and 11 points in 18 games with the Gulls this season.

Stefan_Noesen

It was a long wait – but eventually a satisfying one – for Noesen en route to scoring his first NHL goal. He said it was one of those moments that a player will always cherish. “I saw the red light and threw my hands up,” he said. “It was all the emotion from two long years coming at me all at once.”

He added it took him a while to go through all the congratulatory messages – estimated at 160 – he received on his phone or through social media.

“What a night. What a feeling. Something I’ll never forget,” he posted on his Twitter account. “Thank you everyone for the kind words!”

Former Gulls teammates (and roommates) Joseph Cramarrosa and Ondrej Kase drew assists on Noesen’s first NHL goal. Kase wound up scoring the shootout winner while two other former San Diego players made significant contributions in the game. Nick Ritchie scored one goal in regulation (his sixth of the season), while John Gibson anchored the win between the pipes

The AHL pipeline to Anaheim has been buzzing this season. Twelve players have played for both the Ducks and Gulls so far in 2016-17.

What’s trending

Ontario essentially led wire to wire in capturing last season’s Pacific Division championship. This season has been a little different. The Reign led the division in the opening week of the 2016-17 campaign, but injuries and subsequent call-ups by the parent L.A. Kings left Ontario’s goaltending position unsettled for a month.

The Reign (13-6-5) has begun to make a run to reclaim the division lead since then with a 10-3-2 record in its last 15 games. Ontario now finds itself with striking distance of first place Stockton, trailing the Heat by just three points in the standings with a game in hand.

The Reign’s 4-3 overtime win at San Jose on Dec. 18 helped push the team’s steady climb the division standings. Head coach Mike Stothers said it has not been an easy task after sinking to sixth place in the division in the early moments of the season.

“There’s a lot of good teams in this division,” Stothers explained. “Everyone is good. It’s hard to win. You throw Tucson in the mix and the talent is more dispersed. Every game is close down to the end. You can’t take anything for granted.”

T.J. Hensick, a former NARCh youth roller hockey champion and new acquisition by the Reign for 2016-17, leads Ontario in scoring with 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 24 games. He is followed on the team’s score sheet by Jonny Brodzinski (eight goals, 20 assists) and veterans Michael Mersch (nine goals, 18 points) and Vincent LoVerde (five goals, 16 points).

TJ_Hensick

“It’s been a great atmosphere since I got here,” Hensick said. “What I like most about this team is its mentality. They’ve been extremely good the last couple years. They won the Calder Cup two years ago and lost in the Western Conference finals last year. There’s the mentality here that they expect to win everyday.”

Jack Campbell has returned from the Kings to post a 10-3-2 record, 2.85 GAA and .901 save percentage in net.

Furry friends

A total of 7,371 stuffed animals were collected and donated to the United Way of Kern County during Bakersfield’s annual Teddy Bear Toss on Nov. 26. The 7,855 fans in attendance began throwing the plush animals on the ice following center Anton Lander‘s goal at the 1:17 mark of the third period.

More than 50 non-profit organizations throughout Kern County receive the bears. The latest toss brought the all-time 18-year total of 110,846 stuffed animals.

San Diego held its second annual teddy bear toss on Dec. 17. With the Gulls scoreless deep into the third period in this season’s game against visiting Stockton, fans were instructed to toss the bears onto the ice during a timeout with 9:06 remaining in the period. It took nearly 30 minutes to clear the stuffed animals, some larger than a person, from the ice with help from both Gulls and Heat players.

Teddy_bear

The avalanche of 16,520 furry creatures collected went to the San Diego Regional Law Enforcement Teddy Bear Drive to benefit Rady Children’s Hospital. The number surpassed last year’s total of 15,174 bears.

Eakins remained philosophical about his team’s fifth consecutive setback, putting forward the greater good by saying that there are “a lot of kids that are going to be really, really happy” because of the donated bears.

Top shelf

San Jose center Daniel O’Regan leads all Pacific Division rookies in scoring with 27 points (seven goals, 20 assists) in 22 games.

Tucson defenseman Kyle Wood ranks second among rookie scorers in the division with 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists) in 22 games.

Mangiapane ranks fourth among rookie scorers in the division with 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 24 games, trailing San Antonio’s A.J. Greer (20 points in 26 games).

Bakersfield’s Nick Ellis (4-3-2) stands second best in the division among rookie goaltenders (behind Rittich) with a 2.45 GAA and .928 save percentage.

By the numbers

Attendance averages continue to be robust for the AHL’s five California teams. San Diego, which finished second among the league’s 30 teams last season, leads the Pacific Division with an average of 7,969 fans per game. Next up is Ontario (7,630), followed by Bakersfield (4,823), San Jose (4,281) and Stockton (4,071).

The Gulls rank second this season to Hershey (8,506), last year’s AHL attendance leader. First-year Tucson, the Pacific Division’s newest member, is averaging 3,645 fans.

Bakersfield attracted 8,637 students to its 13th annual Field Trip Day on Nov. 16. The crowd was the second largest Field Trip Day crowd in team history, missing the record by 24 students set back in 2007-08.

The Condors raised $30,000 for charity after a post-game auction of the team’s 75th anniversary commemorative Pearl Harbor jerseys worn in a Dec. 10 home game against Stockton.

Outdoor classic

The Three-Way Chevrolet Condorstown Outdoor Classic is scheduled Jan. 7 at Bakersfield College Memorial Stadium between host Bakersfield and Ontario. The outdoor venue seats approximately 20,000.

The upcoming contest expects to be the largest-attended game in Condors history.

Preceding the outdoor game, an NHL-celebrity alumni game is scheduled Jan. 6 at the same outdoor venue. Hockey Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille will serve as captains of the two NHL alumni-celebrity teams.

“The success of the (California) NHL clubs has been very positive, but the American Hockey League teams in cities like Bakersfield and Ontario have elevated the sport that much higher and made it even more popular,” Gretzky said. “It’s great to see a city like Bakersfield with people who are excited about watching hockey and have gravitated to these players that one day will play in the National Hockey League.”

Both pro hockey events are part of the larger Condorstown Winterfest event that includes public skating as well as youth and adult hockey games though Jan. 4.

For more information, visit www.bakersfieldcondors.com/classic.

Photos & Story/Phillip Brents