The Battle of Alberta – American Hockey League-style – has made its way down to California.
This spring sees the AHL affiliates of the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers locked in a playoff battle for fourth place in the Pacific Division.
The top four teams in each of the AHL’s four divisions qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs. While there is a very faint chance that either the Bakersfield Condors or Stockton Heat could chase down the third-place Ontario Reign, a clash for the fourth and final berth in the division appears more likely.
Each team has five games remaining with 32-25-4-2 Stockton having pulled two points ahead of Bakersfield after defeating the San Diego Gulls, 5-3, on Wednesday. A tall task awaits the Heat, however, with a home-and-home starting Saturday in Stockton against the rival San Jose Barracuda, who have the best points percentage in the AHL at .722.
After the game Sunday in San Jose, the Heat close out their regular season with three games on home ice.
For the Condors, meanwhile, they start a two-game road series against the San Antonio Rampage on Friday after a 4-3 road loss to the Texas Stars. Wracked by NHL recalls and injuries, San Antonio sits 28th in the AHL going into the weekend. The Condors contest four of their final five games on the road.
The Condors and Heat have one more get-together this season, the second-to-last contest on the regular-season schedule for each team, when they meet next Friday at Stockton.
Emerging with the fourth and final playoff spot will likely mean a first-round date with first-place San Jose for either the Condors or Heat.
Stockton has taken a long path back into the thick of the Pacific Division race, thanks most recently to a six-game point streak (5-0-0-1). Ten consecutive losses and 13 defeats in 14 games, spanning from January until near the end of the February nearly buried Stockton for good. They picked up three points in an 11-game span that sent them plummeting down the Pacific Division standings after a promising first half in which they had won 18 of their first 31 games.
But since then the Heat have rallied, winning 12 of 16 games to undo some of the damage created by the earlier slump.
Goal production has come much more easily recently for the Heat, who have 26 goals in their past six games. Rookie Mark Jankowski, a Calgary 2012 first-round choice, leads the team with 27 goals and 53 points. The AHL named him to its all-rookie team earlier this week. Jankowski ranks second in AHL rookie scoring, and his current 10-game point streak (5-7-12) is tied for the longest such run in the league this season.
Thanks in part to a hat trick in the win against San Diego on Wednesday, prospect Hunter Shinkaruk has five goals in his past four games after breaking a 15-game goalless streak and a slide of 30 games spanning more than three months in which he produced one goal. He had started the season with seven goals in his first 13 contests with Stockton. In all, the 22-year-old Shinkaruk, a first-round selection by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2013 NHL Draft acquired by Calgary in a trade last season, is up to 13 goals in 47 AHL games this season.
The Heat used third-period goals from Jankowski and Shinkaruk to put away San Diego in the win Wednesday. The power play has caught fire lately as well and is on a 6-for-27 run.
With No. 1 goaltender Jon Gillies still on recall with Calgary, the Stockton net rests with David Rittich for now. The 24-year-old Czech is 14-11-2 to go with a 2.30 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage (ninth-best among AHL goaltenders).
While Stockton has been made its late-season push, Bakersfield has been marching along as well. The Condors woke up on Jan. 26 with a 15-16-4-1 record, stuck in a five-team jam pushing for the fourth-place slot at the time.
That clog has since eased to the two-team Bakersfield-Stockton race as the Condors have been on their own push as well. The Condors have won 12 of 17 games dating to Feb. 18.
Reinforcements have arrived this week as well. Captain Ryan Hamilton (17-19-36 in 46 AHL games) played and chipped in an assist Wednesday, returning from an injury for the first time since Feb. 18. Forward Jujhar Khaira dressed for the Condors for the first time since Jan.10 after being returned by the Oilers. He is 8-11-19 in 25 AHL games.
Undrafted rookie signee Joseph Gambardella made his pro debut with a 1-1-2 night Wednesday. Edmonton signed the 24-year-old forward out of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell to a two-year entry-level deal that will start next season. The Condors signed him to an AHL tryout deal as well, further boosting their depth. He went 18-34-52 in 41 NCAA games this season before turning pro.
AROUND THE AHL
Here is a look at the other AHL affiliates of Canada’s NHL teams.
Cruising along in the Eastern Conference are the Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs), who have won seven consecutive outings to climb to the top of the North Division. They hold a four-point lead on the position as they enter the final five games of their regular season with a three-game weekend.
Toronto will close out the regular season next Friday and Saturday on the road against the St. John’s IceCaps (Montreal Canadiens). Hosting the final two regular-season AHL games in St. John’s history (at least for now), the IceCaps could be in a desperate situation when the Marlies visit.
St. John’s has a one-point lead on the Utica Comets (Vancouver) for the fourth and final position in the North Division. Utica has a game in hand on St. John’s. The IceCaps have a three-game weekend on the road, including a visit to Utica on Sunday. The Comets close the season with six games in their final nine nights, starting Friday at home against Toronto.
The Binghamton Senators (Ottawa Senators) reside in 29th place. They have a 2-8-0-0 record in their past 10 games.
The Bakersfield-Stockton clash is the lone remaining race in the Western Conference involving affiliates of a Canadian NHL team.
Stockton has added 19-year-old forward Matthew Phillips from the Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League. A 2016 sixth-round pick by Calgary, Phillips went 50-40-90 this season.
The Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets) close out their home schedule this weekend with a two-game set against the Tucson Roadrunners on Friday. Manitoba is one point ahead of its 61-point total last season, a 50-loss campaign. The Moose have 46 losses so far this season. They will have workhorse goaltender Eric Comrie and leading scorer Jack Roslovic available against Tucson after they were reassigned Friday. Each player made his NHL debut Thursday with the Jets in a 5-4 road win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.