📝 by Patrick Williams
The Stockton Heat could use a hero Wednesday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals.
Why not Justin Kirkland?
Kirkland’s Game 2 second-period strike, a whip-like snap shot that beat Chicago Wolves goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov, put Stockton ahead, 2-1. But Chicago answered, and Josh Leivo’s breakaway goal with 17.2 seconds to go in the game allowed the Wolves to finally put away the stubborn Heat and secure a 2-0 series lead.
The Kirkland goal extended his scoring streak to seven games. He leads Stockton in postseason scoring with six goals and nine points in nine games.
“I think I’ve gotten a chance to show my offensive side more,” Kirkland said before the series. “I was a bit more of an offensive guy [in junior], which is now starting to translate to pro. [It’s] a good feeling for me, and that’s been a really, really fun season.
Last night was just the latest example of Kirkland rallying the Heat ― he scored the game-winning goal in all three victories during the division finals against Colorado, which included two 1-0 decisions. His postseason work has continued what has been a career year for the 25-year-old.
“I really focused on shooting the puck,” Kirkland said.
He certainly did. When Kirkland met with Stockton head coach Mitch Love and the team’s coaching staff at the beginning of the year, they had a request. They wanted him to shoot the puck ― including aiming for a certain number of shots per game ― and to simplify his offensive approach.
Armed with a potent shot and a willingness to use it, Kirkland went to it often this season: his 219 regular-season shots ranked him sixth overall in the AHL, and his 25 goals and 48 points were by far career highs. Kirkland had never hit double digits in goals in five previous AHL seasons with Stockton and Milwaukee (2016-19).
“It was kind of always one of my strengths growing up,” Kirkland explained of shooting the puck, “and in that transition to pro [it is] just having that belief in yourself. It’s a lot of hard work in the summer, shooting pucks in my garage, that goes into it. And there’s a lot of credit to my teammates, who have played a big role in that.
“It’s been a good year… Ultimately it’s been a good year for the team, which is what matters.”
The Nashville Predators selected Kirkland in the third round of the 2014 National Hockey League Draft, and he spent his first three pro seasons mainly with Milwaukee. But Kirkland, who grew up just outside of Calgary in Canmore, Alta., has really blossomed as a Flames prospect.
Heat captain Byron Froese can relate strongly to Kirkland’s career path. A fourth-round pick by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009, Froese split four seasons between the AHL and the ECHL before establishing himself. Since then, he has gone on to play 116 NHL games and become one of the most respected captains and leaders in the AHL.
“It doesn’t shock me at all,” Froese said of Kirkland’s offensive emergence this season. “Two years ago I saw him. He’s such a good player all-around. This year he’s just playing with that confidence and swagger. I think it started in training camp in Calgary. He really made a name for himself there.
“He’s playing with tremendous confidence, and rightfully so. He had an unbelievable season, and he’s been a huge success for our team.”
Neither Kirkland nor the Heat are ready to see this season end before the Calder Cup Finals, something that Chicago will surely know entering Game 3.
“I’m not just saying this because it’s my teammates, but we really do have such a special group of guys who have really bonded together,” Kirkland said. “From day one, we have had such a good mix of characters around the locker room. It makes it fun coming to the rink every single day.
“We’ve gone to battle with each other all year long, have each other’s backs. Been there through the good times and the bad times. It’s just such a special group of people, right from the coaching staff down to the trainers to all the support staff.
“It’s just been such a pleasure to be a part of this ride.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports, and is currently the co-host of The Hockey News On The ‘A’ podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.