In the past, the month of December has not been kind to the Stockton Heat. This season was quite different, as the Heat went 6-2-1-1 in their 10 games before the turn of the decade to remain in a solid second place in the standings behind the Tucson Roadrunners. In the jolliest of months, the Heat were a perfect 4-0 against the San Jose Barracuda, including a 4-0 shutout on New Year’s Eve; their first doughnut since January 2018.

This is the best start after 34 games in Stockton’s five-year history. Recording 49 points (22-7-2-3) easily outpaces the 40 points they put up in 2016-17 season (18-12-3-1). They are 15 points ahead of last year’s group (32 points: 14-16-4).

The second half of the season started with a win against San Jose on Jan. 12, which brings the team total to 51 points, two behind the Roadrunners.

The numbers game

(These numbers are after Jan. 12 game against San Jose)

The Heat sport the top power play in the league, netting goals with the man advantage at a 27.3% clip. Their 86.9% penalty kill ranks them third in the league. They also top the league in goals per game, averaging 3.91 goals per contest.

Hey Now…you’re an All-Star

All-Star Glenn Gawdin paces the team scoring lead with 35 points, ranking him eighth in the AHL in scoring. He has dished up 24 apples, one ahead of Alan Quine. Quine is second on the team in points, joining the 30-point club (8-23-31). Knocking on the 30-point door is Buddy Robinson (15-13-28). Quine leads in plus/minus at +17 and points per game at 1.29.

For the rookie class, Philp leads in goals (15) and points (23). Corey Schueneman leads all Heat freshmen in assists with 10.

The Heat have nine players above the 20-point mark at the season’s midpoint, with Brandon Davidson one point away from joining that group. In comparison, last season saw only 12 players top the 20-point mark for the entire season.

Davidson soon to join the 20-point club

On the negative side, Alex Gallant has tallied 65 penalty minutes to date, along with a two-game suspension for “abuse of officials.” Surprisingly, Robinson is second on that list with 48 minutes.

It had been almost two years since a Stockton goaltender had pitched a shutout (Jan. 17, 2018). The Heat have recorded two in the past five games, with each Jon Gillies and Artyom Zagidulin taking turns blanking the hated Barracuda. While Zagidulin’s win/loss record is better, Gillies has the better numbers. In 20 starts, Big Snag Zag is 13-3-2 with a 2.97 GAA and a .901 SV%. Gillies is 10-4-3 with a 2.45 GAA and .913 SV%. Combined the duo sports a 2.75 GAA and a .906 SV%.

First half thoughts

Coach MacLean has done a great job in blending youth and experience together. Even when he goes with a lineup of 11 forward 7 defensemen, which he has done at least a dozen times this year, he always seems to have a rookie or second year player with players like Quine, Robinson, Austin Czarnik, or captain Byron Froese. Even on defense, he pairs Davidson with players like Andrew Nielsen or Rob Hamilton. Zac Leslie has been paired with Nielsen or Schueneman. Coach MacLean has been rotating the net since Gillies came back after the opening weekend in Colorado, keeping both fresh.

Kirkland providing some late string music

Justin Kirkland has been a good addition to this team. The 23 year-old is on pace for 48 points, which would be his career high. Half of his six goals in the final minute of play: finding the twine with 17 seconds left to beat the Barracuda, netting the puck with 41 seconds left to send the game to overtime against Colorado (a game the Heat won), and scoring with 3.2 seconds left to force overtime against Iowa (an overtime loss). Good Vibes, as Mrs. Finest calls him due to his resemblance to country star Chris Janson, has played center and left wing with a variety of players. Recently he has played with Adam Ruzicka and Philp on what I call the third line, but has spent most of his time on a line with Gawdin and Robinson. With MacLean going with an 11/7 lineup for the better part of December, Kirkland has rotated through the top three lines. The only downside to his game is he is a team worse -5 (tied with Mason Morelli).

Injury update

After almost 10 weeks, Martin Pospisil returned to the ice on Jan. 11. He was paired on the fourth line with Gallant and Morelli. While he was not noticeable while on the ice, MacLean did shorten his bench in the third period to preserve the lead. I expect he will rotate between press box and fourth line for the remainder of the year.

All-Star Matthew Phillips suffered a broken kneecap in the Dec. 28 loss at Bakersfield and is expected to miss 6 to 8 weeks. He recorded 30 points (14-16) in his 28 games played to date. As of this writing, Stockton has gone 4-1-0-0 without Mighty Mouse being in the lineup. He told me on Jan. 8 that the surgery went well and he is anxious to get back. It would be nice if he returned a few weeks prior to the start of a playoff run.

Ryan Lomberg returned to the ice on Jan. 8 and scored an empty netter against Bakersfield. The next day he suffered a lower body injury in practice and is listed as week-to-week again.

AHL-contract players

This portion of the article will focus on three players who are on AHL contracts that should be considered for two-way league minimum NHL contracts. It just so happens that all three are defensemen.

Zac Leslie is on pace for a career year. He leads all Heat defensemen with 23 points (4-19). He has already tied his personal best in scoring, doing so in less than half the games. His 19 helpers are good for third on the team. While still only 25 years old, he brings an experienced presence on the back end. He quarterbacks PP 2 and PK1. He also sports a +12, another personal best. He is the second-best defensemen on the team behind Davidson on my depth chart.

SF and Zac Leslie

Rob Hamilton is a steady presence on the blue line. While his eight points (2-6) is down from last year’s 29 points (7-22), he is playing a more defensive-minded game as reflected in his +/- total (+14). While most of his time he has been paired with Leslie, recently MacLean has put him on top pairing with Davidson. Hamilton ranks fourth on my defensive depth charts, behind Davidson, Leslie, and Alexander Yelesin.

Top 4 Hamilton (not Dougie)

Corey Schueneman’s game has come along swimmingly. A product of West Michigan under coach Andy Murray, this is his first full professional season. Just under a half-a-point player, he has solidified himself in the bottom pairing, recently alongside Nielsen. He drives the puck deep, has good vision, and a decent shot. He will finish his checks and move people away from the front of the net. He came to Phillips’ defense, going after Josh Murray after he broke Phillips’ kneecap. He has jumped past Rinat Valiev into fifth on my depth chart.

The third annual Finest Flames roadie

The time is just around the corner for the Finests’ two-game call up to Calgary. We will be attending the Flames / Predators game in Calgary on Thu., Feb. 6 and then will follow the team to Vancouver to watch the Flames / Canucks game on Sat., Feb. 8 at Rogers Arena.

In Calgary, we are planning to pre-game (and post-game) at Bottlescrew Bill’s (located at 140 10th St SW in downtown Calgary). Come meet the Finests along with special appearances from FreetheFlame and Skylardog. Even if you are not going to the game, I know Bottlescrew Bill’s has the games on the big screen and drink specials during the game. Mrs. Finest and I should be there around 5 p.m. and will come back after the game. It is a 20-minute walk in sub-zero (now just plain zero) weather to the Dome or a 5-minute Uber ride.

In Vancouver, come join us (with special guest OTW) as we invade Canucks territory. Pre-game will start at Red Racer Taphouse located at 871 Beatty Street (about an 8-minute walk to the arena), again starting around 5 p.m.

What is better than some food, drink, and great Flames (and Heat) talk before and after the games? Besides posting comments on Ryan Pike’s pre-game and post-game wrap ups on FlamesNation, we can discuss those articles in person while commenting on the comments and partaking in some adult beverages. We hope to meet as many of you as possible.