There's been a lot of hacking and wheezing between the pipes for the Stockton Heat.
Three weeks ago, star goaltending prospect Jon Gillies suffered a day-to-day lower body injury and has yet to return. Kevin Poulin, who the parent club acquired to stand in, is out for more than a month after dislocating a knee cap last Saturday. That left backup Kent Simpson, who the Ontario Reign feasted on for four goals in their last meeting in early November, to answer the call in this pre-Thanksgiving tilt:
Simpson was burned shortly after the opening draw as Ontario played whack-a-mole. Adrian Kempe's bid from the top of the circles was deflected to the right dot for Nick Ebert, who drilled a bullet off the Stockton keeper, the rebound landing for a wide-open Justin Auger tap-in. Auger recalled, "I just saw it come off the goalie and I turned around it was sitting right there and I swung at it." He also benefited from a slow Ladislav Smid/Kenney Morrison switch. "It seemed like it was going in slow motion, I was just hoping no one would come in there and whack it away. It felt like it took couple minutes to get in there, but luckily it trickled in."
Then, Jonny Brodzinski hit the post from a distance, flashing a quick release as Austin Carroll crowded him.
Eight minutes in, the Heat had yet to record a shot. But that didn't matter, as penalties once again slowed Ontario's grind. Kempe seemed to lead with the knee on a Heat attacker, and shortly thereafter, Bill Arnold capitalized on a pretty rush off a Drew Shore dish.
This continued a poor stretch for the previously more-or-less impregnable Reign PK, their fifth power play marker surrendered in their last three games. This, after giving up only three PP goals in their first dozen.
However, Shore was quick to repay the favor as he tripped Brodzinski. On the ensuing PP, Michael Mersch's seeing-eye feed found Sean Backman creeping backdoor, but Simpson got the better of the attempted snipe.
The Heat looked about ready to survive their first infraction, but Kempe took a brilliant Zac Leslie pass, and left to his own devices at the dot, fired the puck over Simpson's right pad.
After one, Ontario had outshot Stockon 12-4, and by my count, they had five even strength chances to the Heat's "sub" zero.
The middle frame kicked off without much kick, as neither team registered an ES chance until a third of the way in, when Stockton enjoyed their first non-PP opportunity of the night.
Halfway into period, the Heat had clearly found their feet. They were finally applying 5v5 pressure, albeit a relatively harmless amount.
Perhaps trying to jumpstart the Reign machine, Mike Stothers began to change up his lines late in the second, as Brodzinski helped Nic Dowd and Mersch to back-to-back chances. We would also see Jordan Samuels-Thomas move up with Kempe and Sean Backman. Stothers said of these swaps, "Sometimes you just have a feeling. I just like the way Brodzinski plays. I want this guy to score in the worst way."
All in all, it was an evenly played period, as Ontario and Stockton notched a pair of even strength chances apiece.
The Heat searched for a quick spark to open the third, as Markus Granlund tipped a Kenny Agostino pass in front of Peter Budaj. However, Budaj read the play all the way.
Granlund couldn't help his side, so he tried his best to aid the opposition, slashing Valentin Zykov in the neutral zone for no apparent reason. This led to yet another Brodzinski post:
@Sheng_Peng pretty sure at least 5th. He's hit the crossbar once or twice— Robyn (@robyn_jftc) November 26, 2015
Stothers, however, emphasized the bright side, "I think once Brodz gets his first goal, he’s going to get a ton of goals."
By inches, Stockton had got away with it this time. But just seconds after that escape act, they jumped on the high wire again, as Joel Lowry battled through Jakub Nakladal on the boards, drawing a hold. All this culminated in...another post, this time by Backman.
All this had Ontario hanging on a bit at evens. Of course, Stockton would be expected to force the play down a goal, but once again, it was relatively harmless pressure. The Heat only had two third period ES chances with about seven minutes remaining, though that was two more than the Reign themselves had managed.
Backman took it upon himself to jumpstart Ontario's now-moribund offense as he darted by a napping Oliver Kylington...but right into Simpson. Afterwards, the waterbug winger pleaded his innocence: "I thought I did a decent job of trying to stay out of his way and get the puck toward the net. I got a little bump from behind on there with their defender...I did the best I could to stay out of his way, but [the ref's] got to call that, I guess."
The resulting Heat PP was a sad midnight Hungry-Man frozen dinner. But then, Stockton commenced their subscription to the "Wednesday Evening Post" (HT for that to my press box neighbor AHL official Jason Hernandez) with a bizarre Budaj blocker deflection into a charging Nakladal's upper body and off the crossbar.
With mere minutes left, that was truly the Heat's last gasp. Later, Emilie Poirier failed to strike a hot cross-ice feed while all alone in the slot, a heavy-handed metaphor to cap their night.