Breaking down the Stockton Heat’s AHL playoff run and what comes next

The Stockton Heat’s season has come to an end, and with the team moving to Calgary next season, this is the end of professional hockey in Stockton for the time being. The Heat were beaten 3–0 in Game 6 of the Calder Cup semi-finals by the Chicago Wolves, ultimately losing the series 4–2. And while hockey on the ice is now over, the work is just beginning for this team, who have a ton to do to get all set for next season.

Here’s how we got here

Round 2: Stockton vs the Bakersfield Condors

After finishing at the top of the Pacific Division, the Heat earned a first round bye, and waited to face off against the Bakersfield Condors—the farm team of the Edmonton Oilers—in the second round of the playoffs. The Heat had won six of ten against the Condors in the regular season, and had no trouble sending them home in a quick three-game sweep.

Emilio Pettersen scored two of the three game-winning goals, and the team got production from across their lineup. This was the first playoff series win in franchise history.

Round 3: Stockton vs the Colorado Eagles

The farm team of the Colorado Avalanche was going to be an incredibly tough out, but the Heat managed to beat them 3–1 to win their second series. Dustin Wolf picked up three shutouts after not registering a single shutout for the entire regular season.

Wolf was the star of the series undoubtedly. It was just the third time a goalie had three shutouts in a playoff series, and the first time since 2000.

Justin Kirkland also notched all three game winners in this series, the first time for that since Oliver Bjorkstrand did it in 2016. He was a difference-maker for the team in this series.

Round 4: Stockton vs the Chicago Wolves

The top team in the AHL, the Wolves were going to be a very difficult matchup not just for the Heat, but for every one of Chicago’s opponents. The Wolves did end up being the team that sent the Heat home, but Stockton made a series out of it. The Heat went down 3–0 in the series, but battled back in the following two games to get close. Unfortunately, they just weren’t able to bring it all the way back.

The first two games of the series were coin-flips, and the Heat ended up on the wrong side of both. The first was a back-and-forth contest that saw scoring coming from the depth players Connor Zary, Eetu Tuulola, Walker Duehr, and Luke Philp. And while they were able to match Chicago through three periods, they could not find a winner. The team lost in overtime off a goal from Jamieson Rees. Former Flame Josh Leivo had two goals and an assist in this one.

The Heat pushed really hard in Game 2 to try and even the series. Despite putting up 35 shots on netminder Pyotr Kochetkov, only Kirkland and Philp were able to beat him. Stockton allowed a goal 17 seconds in to go down early, but battled back to make it 2–2 in the third. However with just 17 seconds left in the game, an errant pass led to a breakaway chance for Leivo, who buried it to give the Wolves a 2–0 lead.

Game 3 was a rough one for the Heat, who got beat 3–0 by the Wolves. While they held their own most of the game, they were unable to convert on any of their five power play opportunities. The Wolves had goals from Richard Panik, Ivan Lodnia, and Stefan Noesen, Panik and Noesen have each played over 200 NHL games.

In the first elimination game, the Heat battled back from being down to pick up their first win of the series. The Wolves scored early in this one, but Martin Pospisil answered back with a goal of his own. Then the Wolves scored two more, and with 15 minutes left the Heat were on the ropes. Justin Kirkland answered back then Glenn Gawdin picked up the tying goal with just 49 seconds remaining. He would pick up the overtime winner just over six minutes into the extra frame to stave off elimination.

Game 5 was another one where the Heat went down first but battled back to pick up the win. Duehr would score the first for Stockton then Jakob Pelletier would get his first goal of the series to give the Heat the lead with just over 12 minutes left in the game. Panik would end up tying it for Chicago to force overtime, but it was Connor Mackey who picked up the winner for the Heat in overtime to send the series back to Chicago for Game 6.

Game 6 was a heartbreaker for the Heat. Dustin Wolf did everything he could to keep the Heat in this one, but the skaters in front of him just could not solve Kochetkov on the other side. Wolf stopped 35 of the 37 shots he faced, but the Wolves were too much for the Heat in this one and took the series by a 4–2 count.

Three big storylines emerged over the course of the series. The first was that the Heat’s power play went completely cold through the series, going an abysmal 1-for-28 through six games. The team had so many looks on the man-advantage, but just could not convert when they needed to.

The other was that the Heat’s defensive core was generally a weak spot for this team. They did not have a game-breaking defenceman who could be relied upon as a difference-maker on the blueline. Connor Mackey was probably as close as the Heat had, but beyond that, the team just did not have enough on the back-end to contain the Wolves.

Finally, the Heat were missing a number of key players through this series. Adam Ruzicka only featured in two games for the Heat after being returned following the Flames’ season ending. He likely suffered an injury along the way. They also only got ten games out of Luke Philp, who was also dealing with an injury. This gave the team a chance to see Rory Kerins and Ilya Nikolayev, but probably would have preferred to have their more experienced veterans instead.

Standout performers

It is hard to say enough good things about Dustin Wolf, who was far and away the Heat’s best player of the regular season and of the playoffs. He did everything that he could to will this team to victory through three rounds of the playoffs, and finished with three shutouts and a 0.929 save percentage through 13 games. He was the only goalie to play for the Heat in the postseason.

Justin Kirkland also had a heck of a playoffs this year, finishing as the team’s top point-producer in the post season with 12 points in 13 games. He also led the team with seven goals and 14 penalty minutes through the playoffs. An unrestricted free agent, he has no doubt increased his value after these playoffs.

What’s next for the Heat?

This is the end of professional hockey in Stockton as the team packs up and begins their next chapter in Calgary. This is a really tough loss for the city of Stockton and especially for the fans of the team who have supported the team so passionately over the last seven years. They have shown that there is a market for hockey in California, and it feels like only a matter of time before a team moves their AHL franchise to Stockton. We wish them nothing but the best.

For the Heat, they will begin setting up shop in Calgary. This will be the farm team’s 13th move in their history, travelling all over North America over the last 40 years.

There are no details being released around where they will play, but there are strong rumours that they will be based out of Seven Chiefs Sportsplex on the Tsuut’ina Nation. One of the Hitmen or Roughnecks would have to play elsewhere for the Heat to be able to play out of the Saddledome.

There are also no updates on the team name, jersey designs, or much else on that front, but those details will no doubt be released closer to the start of the season.

For Flames fans in Calgary, this is an enormous opportunity to see the Flames’ young stars develop in the city. The Flames have adopted a draft and develop strategy over the last number of years, and most of the Flames’ players, particularly their draft picks, spent time with the Heat in Stockton. This is a great opportunity to watch the stars of the future for this team.

The Heat are going to be a very good and very young team next year. The aforementioned Nikolayev and Kerins will be joined by Yan Kuznetsov, Jeremie Poirier, and Adam Klapka. Add in Connor Zary, Ilya Solovyov, Dustin Wolf, and likely also Jakob Pelletier and you have the makings of a very skilled team with not a whole lot of AHL experience. And although the team will have Phillips and likely also Mackey back, they will likely need a bunch of veterans on the lineup to help their young players grow and develop.

Coming off the back of this playoff run, the Heat will be hungry for much more going into next season. If you’re not already on the Heat bandwagon, it’s time to hop aboard.

Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire

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