But after a 5-3 loss on home ice on Friday night, Stockton trails the best-of-five 2-1 and will face a must-win on Sunday in game 4 of the Calder Cup opening round series.
"It felt like we had to play playoff hockey for about six weeks before we got to this point, so it's nice to be in," said coach Ryan Huska earlier in the week. "Good on the players for not throwing in the towel when things looked dim."
In his third year at the helm of Calgary's minor league affiliate, Huska's first trip to the playoffs comes in the final year of his three-year contract.
It's been a season that's had three distinct chapters. The Heat blazed out to a sizzling 16-6-2 start. That was followed by an awful 3-15-3 stretch from mid-December to mid-February. Then, coinciding with getting Garnet Hathaway back on Feb. 21, the Heat promptly snapped a 10-game losing streak and were dynamite the rest of the season, finishing off 15-4-4 to edge out Bakersfield (Edmonton Oilers affiliate) for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Pacific Division.
"There are a few things. Hathaway was one guy, for sure," Huska pointed out, when asked the reason for the turnaround. "Getting Brett Kulak back as well, helped us. Those were important factors for our group, getting them back. Hath in particular. He changed the feel of our room."
Something to Prove
This series pits the best team in the Western Conference in San Jose (43-16-9), who finished second overall, against Stockton (34-25-9), who was the lowest ranked team of the eight playoff teams in the West.
A good team already, the Sharks demise in six games to the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup playoffs wasn't good news for the Heat, who have to face an even better team.
From the San Jose line-up that Calgary faced in the final game of the NHL regular season, four forwards have since been reassigned by the big club to the Barracuda -- Marcus Sorensen, Timo Meier, Kevin Labanc and Danny O'Regan, who edged out Mark Jankowski for the AHL's most outstanding rookie.
"They have a deep team and those guys are going to make them deeper," Huska admitted. "But it's not going to change how we're going to play against them. It just means another weapon on the other side that we have to be aware of when they're on the ice."
Recapping the Series so Far
Last Friday at SAP Center, San Jose won the opener 4-0, but Sunday was a different story. A nifty goal from Jankowski 90 seconds into the game was the first of four first period shots to beat AHL goaltender of the year Troy Grosenick, who had a 1.30 goals-against average and .946 save percentage against the Heat in the regular season. Additionally, he had turned aside all 28 shots he faced in game 1.
Austin Carroll at 12:22, Linden Vey at 16:23 and Hathaway at 17:07 also scored in that first period uprising. Hathaway's goal was a beauty. Sprung on a breakaway on a TJ Brodie-esque 100-foot pass from Kulak, the big right winger broke in off the sideboards and beat Grosenick on a slick deke to his backhand.
"A lot of people don't realize how skilled (Hathaway) is," Jankowski says about his linemate. "They obviously see what comes to the surface right away -- his grit and sandpaper game, he gets in the face of the other team -- but he has the skill to make plays when he has an opportunity."
Hathaway alongside rookies Jankowski and left-winger Andrew Mangiapane make up Stockton's No. 1 unit. They've been together for a while now.
"Two hard-working guys, who are really easy to play with," says Jankowski. "They're both very skilled. Mang, obviously, can make a lot of plays, he's a goal scorer. Garnet really likes to get in there, be first on the forecheck, muck things up and help get pucks. When he gets the puck, he can make plays too."
Friday night in game 3, O'Regan's slapshot from the blueline with 16 seconds gave San Jose a 2-0 lead after one. While veterans Mike Angelidis and Brandon Bollig got the Heat back to even at 2-2 after two periods, the Barracuda got goals 1:26 apart late in the third period to take a 4-2 lead and essentially put the game away. Mike Kostka scored with 28 seconds left and the goalie pulled to give Stockton some faint hope, but an empty net goal came right after.
Top Line Responds to Coach's Challenge
After game one, Huska said he went to his No. 1 line and challenged them, telling them that he needed more.
Huska has been impressed by how Jankowski takes feedback and responds to it immediately and positively.
"I get to be with him every day and I'm a fan of the way he plays the game," said the coach. "He's an intelligent player and maybe my favourite part about him, you can challenge him to raise his level and I haven't been disappointed once when we've done that to him. He's always responded the right way.
"We challenged him and his line to be better after game 1 and we saw that in game 2. He had three points that night and logged a lot of really heavy minutes for us in a lot of different situations. It's good to see a guy like that, when challenged, raise his level, because we're going to need him to continue to do that along the way for us to have the success we want."
Finishing the regular season with 27 and 20 goals respectively to finish 1-2 on the team, Jankowski and Mangiapane became the first pair of Calgary AHL rookies to reach the 20-goal mark since Matthew Lombardi and Chuck Kobasew did so with the Saint John Flames in 2002-03. For what it's worth, Lombardi and Kobasew went on to log over 1,100 combined NHL games.
Relishing the Experience
Playing alongside Rasmus Andersson in the team's top four, Kulak is embracing the opportunity to play in some intense post-season hockey.
Kulak is well aware there are changes coming this summer to the Flames blue line.
"There will be a lot of opportunity going into next year's camp and I'm excited about it. You just have to continue to work hard up until that time comes and everything will fall into place," said the 23-year-old, who got into 21 games with Calgary this season.
He noted that right now is a great chance to get a jump start on trying to secure one of those jobs that could be available. It's worth noting that in 2017-18, Kulak will also be waiver eligible so he can no longer be shuttled back and forth from the minors without being put on waivers and made available to the rest of the league.
"With Calgary out now, there will be extra eyes watching us," said Kulak, who isn't wrong. In addition to assistant GM Brad Pascall who is a regular spectator, president of hockey operations Brian Burke and general manager Brad Treliving have also stopped by. "Every management team likes winners so the deeper we go in playoffs, the better it is for everyone."
Ending a Five-Year Drought
Stockton is trying to give the Flames organization its first AHL playoff series win since the Abbotsford Heat defeated the Milwaukee Admirals 4-1 in 2012.
The last playoff series win before that was in 2010, a team that Mikael Backlund was a part of.
The other key in Stockton's win last Sunday was the goaltending performance from David Rittich, who has been a really nice find since being signed away from the Czech Republic last spring. After San Jose scored three goals in less than five minutes in the second period, Huska immediately pulled Jon Gilles and inserted Rittich, who led the team during the regular season with five shutouts and a .924 save percentage.
"It's not an easy spot for a goaltender to come in, they had the momentum, but he came in and like he typically always does, the way he starts games, he just loves to play," Huska said. "Once he felt the puck a few times, he got himself quickly into the zone he's been in for most of the year and he made some real big saves for us to allow us to keep that lead."
Rittich stopped 11 of the 12 shots he faced to preserve the victory.
"He made one save, he threw in an old school pad stack that was just phenomenal. It was a timely save. When you look at David, it doesn't really matter how he made the save. His job is to keep the puck out. Sometimes it looks funny but he doesn't care, he's going to try and do everything he can to make sure it doesn't cross that line."
Veterans a Key Part of the Mix
Generally, to enjoy success in the AHL, it requires a mix of experienced veterans and talented kids. The make-up of the Heat is no different.
Speaking of 2012, three current members of the Heat played that season for the Norfolk Admirals when the AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Calder Cup. Those three are 31-year-old Kostka -- picked up from Ottawa in the Curtis Lazar trade, 27-year-old Keith Aulie -- Flames fourth round pick in 2007 that re-signed with the organization in November, and Angelidis, the team's 31-year-old captain.
Same goal, different teamhttps://t.co/btQdEiZxyk— Scott Linesburgh (@ScottLinesburgh) April 19, 2017
There's also a Stanley Cup ring in the room with Bollig, the 30-year-old a familiar name for Flames fans. Bollig was a regular contributor this season, picking up 11 goals and 22 points for the Heat as the pending unrestricted free agent plays out the final year of his three-year/$3.75 million NHL deal.
To have more success this weekend, Jankowski says it has to be more of the same from his team.
"We need to stay on them and keep wearing them down. We're a big, heavy team and we play in-your-face hockey and we can't get away from that in this series," he said prior to game 3.
"We've got to take the body and hit whenever we can. It's a long series and that will take its toll. Just get to Grosenick as much as we can. A lot of pucks and bodies to the net. Tire him out and wear him down."
For game three, Stockton tweaked its lines from the previous game as Morgan Klimchuk (upper body) was a scratch but veteran Matt Frattin returned to the line-up. Ryan Lomberg (undisclosed) remains out after being banged up in game 1:
The injuries have opened up a spot for 19-year-old Matthew Phillips, coming off a 50-goal season with Victoria (WHL) and with the team on an amateur try-out. The 2016 sixth round pick made his AHL debut in the Heat's regular season finale against Tucson.
"We knew that he was a guy that can generate some offence from his track record and the game against Tucson, he handled himself well," says Huska. "Because of that, he gave us the confidence to go to him."
Making waves. I caught up with Flames prospect Matthew Phillips, who has impressed so far in his time with Stockton. https://t.co/DnlGIOkjtB pic.twitter.com/jX03mdCMHl— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) April 26, 2017
On the back end, pairings for game 3 were:
The one change from the first two games was inserting 6-foot-3 ex-Red Deer Rebel Kayle Doetzel for veteran Keith Aulie, who got injured in game 2 blocking a shot.
"We really didn't know how he would fare when he first came over. We threw him right into the fire his first couple games and the one thing that jumps out at you is he's got really good smarts," said Huska. "His skating ability is the one knock on him, but he's got a really high hockey sense where he's able to make up for a little bit of a lack of mobility by always making the right play and always being in the right position."
A Flames sixth round pick in 2014, Mattsson has been playing in the top men's league in Sweden. Having reached the end of his contract, he is a candidate to come over to North America to play next season.
"For a guy that came into our group, not really knowing anybody, he was blocking shots his first game, he's a real competitive young man and he's a guy that we wouldn't hesitate to put in the line-up right now which I think says a lot about what he was able to come in and do for us."
Huska opted to give Rittich his first playoff start on Friday night. After getting beaten twice in the first period, he was perfect on 13 shots faced in the second, but the Barracuda beat him twice late in the third before adding an empty netter. Rittich was credited with 28 saves.
"I don't think we can go wrong with whoever gets the start for us, but it is nice to know that if someone does have an off night, you have a guy coming in that can turn the tide of a game," said Huska. "We've been fortunate this year to have two really good goaltenders that we've had at our disposal all year."
With the season on the line, I wouldn't be surprised to see Huska go back to Gillies for game 4 on Sunday.
By the way, have you liked Flames From 80 Feet on Facebook yet? Do so now! It's another way to be alerted to new Calgary stories I've written, other articles from my colleagues I enjoyed and I'll also sometimes use that space to weigh in on the news of the day.
Recent Flames Reading:
- Pro Hockey Debut: Little Matthew Phillips Making a Big Impression in Stockton - Fresh off a 50-goal season in the WHL, 5-foot-6 Matthew Phillips is taking his act to the AHL. He talks about how his first couple games and how the adjustment has gone. (April 26, 2017)
- Change is the only Constant: Who Might be Back and Who Might Not in 2017-18 - The off-season begins for the Flames with a look at 12 names frequently mentioned in 'will they be back' debates. I examine what might unfold for each of them and why. (April 23, 2017)
- 29 Lines About 29 Losses: The Many Reasons Brad Treliving Should be Furious - After a second straight loss in Honda Center to fall behind 2-0, another winnable game blown, my look at why the Flames GM should be furious and frustrated after, as was reported. (April 16, 2017)
- Five Regrets: What Flames Would Want to Do Different Next Time After Game 1 Loss - Dissecting the five main reasons Calgary dropped the season opener. Five guys, who had they had an opportunity to do things differently, surely would have chosen to do so. (April 14, 2017)