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#AHLOTB: Stockton goalies turn season around

By Brandon Kisker | AHL On The Beat Archive


On the heels of an NCAA Championship, the Heat would turn to highly touted prospect Jon Gillies for the first game in Heat history back on October 10.


The 22-year-old responded by stopping all 19 shots that Rockford mustered for his first pro win and first pro shutout.


Fast-forward to Gillies’ next win, another shutout victory, this time on the road against the Texas Stars on October 21.


Then fast-forward to November 6, Stockton vs. Bakersfield at Stockton Arena. Gillies goes perfect in the first but made an awkward save in the final minute of that period and wouldn’t return.


We’d later find out he wouldn’t return for the rest of the season after undergoing hip surgery.


Meanwhile goalies Joni Ortio and Kevin Poulin were starting their seasons in an intriguing way.


Ortio had been knocking at the door to push for playing time in Calgary, however Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo would start above him on the depth chart. When Ramo cleared waivers on October 21 and eventually would report to play with the Heat, it looked like Ortio’s path to playing was going to happen, but an injury to Hiller saw Ramo recalled on October 29.


As Hiller looked poised to return in late November the three-headed monster between the pipes was avoided by sending Ortio through waivers and eventually to the Stockton Heat.


“Joni was fully expecting on being in Calgary, that’s where his mind was and when players set themselves on a certain goal, and you achieve it, and then down the road things don’t work out that way, it’s a little difficult when you first come down,” head coach Ryan Huska said. “So for him, it was more of a mental block and making sure he brings his best here, to ready himself for his opportunity with us.”


However disappointing it may have been to see his time in Calgary come to an end for the time being, Ortio knew this was an opportunity he had to seize.


“I was just excited to play,” said Ortio of his reassignment. “Getting only two starts in November, I just wanted to play, to get back into a rhythm of playing a lot and helping your team to win games. There are not a lot of guys that jump right into the bright lights and run with it. You have to put in your time in the AHL and pay your dues like most guys have. You have to just keep chipping away at it.”


In the case of Poulin, a sixth-year pro who had spent every game of his career in the New York Islanders organization, an equally strange scenario played out thousands of miles away from California. Placed on waivers by the Isles in hopes of reassigning him to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, Poulin was claimed off the wire by the Tampa Bay Lightning.


“I thought when I was claimed on waivers by Tampa Bay that I’d have an opportunity to play a couple games, but that opportunity didn’t happen and I was sent down,” Poulin said of his brief stint with the Lightning. “They wanted to play their own goalies that they drafted and there was no room for me, and I was shocked a bit because I was put in a weird situation where I wasn’t even practicing with the team. I was doing my own thing and working out. When the trade happened I was really excited to get out here and get this opportunity to play.”


A trade did come as the Lightning sent the goalie to the Calgary Flames on November 12, 2015, for future considerations. It was the first NHL trade made during the regular season until December 14 when Chicago and Pittsburgh swapped defenseman.


Poulin played in his first game since April 19, 2015, for the Stockton Heat a day after the trade completed. He’d fall in the shootout in his Heat debut but came back to win his next two decisions, including a 21-save shutout against San Diego on November 18.


“Kevin was different from Joni because he was really, really excited to be here because he knew this was an opportunity for him to play games again and to try and prove himself to a new organization after a tough start for him this season,” Huska said. “I think the start of the year, the adversity he faced made him a better goaltender now than he was at the beginning of the year. I think he really appreciates the opportunity and realizes he has to make each day count.”


The adversity that Coach Huska refers to was a freak lower-body injury suffered during the first round of a shootout against San Jose on November 21, just eight days into his career as a Heat goaltender. It kept him out for 15 games. It was during that stretch that Ortio started, near exclusively. Poulin returned on January 6 and he, along with Ortio, have been big reasons why the Heat have turned the tables in 2016.


“These two were 100 percent responsible for our turnaround this month,” said Huska. “You don’t have that kind of success unless your goaltenders are giving you a chance to win every night and if you’re going through a stretch where the goaltending is shaky, it’s difficult for the team and their confidence but a strong goalie performance can mask a lot of errors that teams may make and when they’re able to do that and the team starts seeing some wins because of the play of your goaltenders, confidence grows and your team grows stronger. A lot of the success we’ve had in January goes back to the performances of those two.”


In total, the Heat have seen Jon Gillies, Kent Simpson, Karri Ramo, Eric Hartzell, Kevin Poulin and Joni Ortio maintain the crease for the team this season. Goaltending Coach Scott Gouthro is tasked with managing the two goaltenders and ensuring that their performances improve every day.


Using six different goalies by Black Friday in November may not have been the plan from the get go, but adapting is a trait goaltenders, and goalie coaches apparently, have to have. Gouthro says he adapts with the personalities of whomever is between the pipes and now that the Heat have settled with their two guys, the problem of having two starting goaltenders in Stockton is a good one.


“It’s a good problem to have, to have two number one goaltenders, and hats off to both of them because they come to work every day and prepare and get ready for each night and both have been very consistent,” said Gouthro. “Both are quality goaltenders, they like to push each other and they have a great relationship off the ice as well which helps too.”


The relationship that the pair of goaltenders have is another important key as the two understand what each has gone through this year and both continue to press for more playing time with signature wins.


“Making sure they are pushing the other to get better is one thing, but the other guy has to respond,” Huska explains. “I think it’s tough for them because they’re kind of their own little segment of our team and they spend a lot of time together all the time, and because they’re always together on the ice there’s a bit of a bond that forms and they understand what goes on with each other with regards to the pressures of the position on any given day.


“There is good pressure within our group and with our two here. You’re the hero or the goat on any given night. The goaltenders have a tough position because there’s a lot of pressure on them to perform. They push each other to get better each and every night, it’s a win for our entire organization.”


Poulin got a pair of extra-time wins against Manitoba a little over a week ago, allowing just three combined goals, but then Ortio pitches a gem against the Pacific Division-leading Ontario Reign on Wednesday in Stockton allowing just one goal on 37 shots.


“We both had to overcome a lot of adversity, a lot more than some players go through in their whole careers,” said Ortio. “It was a rough start to the year for the both of us and now I think we’re both just happy to be here and getting decent minutes. We can relate to each other better then maybe some other guys would because of it too.”


For the Heat’s sake, they’ll hope that the relationship between Poulin and Ortio continues to cultivate a winning mindset for the masked men. Poulin has won his last three decisions while Ortio has won five of his last six.