by Brandon Weiss | AHL On The Beat
Between the pipes, it’s all about quick reactions.
For the Stockton Heat’s Jon Gillies, his success was about slowing down.
“I’ve always been patient as a person, but never as a hockey player,” said Gillies, reflecting on his growth through 61 games of the 2018-19 season -– his fourth year in the professional ranks. “Just sort of trusting the process. I’ve never done well with that because it’s kind of putting it in someone else’s hands.”
For the highly touted Calgary Flames prospect, selected 75th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft, the process meant taking a step back and recalibrating after an up-and-down start to the season. There wasn’t one consistent cause of the goal light flashing –- a bounce here, a carom there, a deflection on top of the blue paint, some rotten puck luck mixed in -– but the inconsistency was a frustrating constant.
“Going into any season you have high hopes,” said Heat goalie coach Colin Zulianello. “You want success early on, and that didn’t happen for Jon or for our team, for that matter. Sometimes when you’re in that situation it’s easy to get caught up in it, to get away from focusing on the process and just taking care of the six inches in front of your face. You start focusing on the big picture instead of the now.”
As Gillies described it, the square peg met the round hole in most of his starts early. If he played well, the team result wasn’t there. If he played poorly, Stockton kept scoring. With no common denominator in his wins, he was lost at sea.
The turning point came on a night Gillies refers to as “one of my worst games of the season.” Talking separately to both the netminder and his coach, the answer was the same -– a Feb. 9 tilt against Colorado, the second of four games between the teams over a two-week stretch -– a 6-2 win.
“If you look back to the series against Colorado, it was a pivotal time for him,” said Zulianello. “We went into a tough environment and he had two solid starts for us, got a win in the second night. He’s kept it going since then. What’s enabled Jon to do this is he’s playing more free, he’s thinking less and just going out and doing what he’s always done. I’m proud of how he’s been able to stick with it and work through his struggles. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s a trait of an elite goaltender.”
Talking to the tendy, you’d be hard-pressed to realize they’re talking about the same contest.
“I remember we played Colorado, a Saturday night there,” Gillies started. “We won, 6-2. I remember looking at Zuli after the game and saying that may be one of the worst hockey games I’ve played in a long time, but we ended up getting some bounces and getting the win. I’ve found that pretty funny to look back on. I thought I was pretty bad, but getting the win was big for me.”
Since that Saturday night in Colorado, Gillies has started all but one game, entering this weekend having earned the nod in 13 straight. Over that span he has returned to form, to the tune of a record of 8-4-1 and a .914 save percentage. In his eight wins in that stretch, Gillies has made 255 stops on 275 shots faced –- a .938 save percentage.
He’s had spectacular nights, including a 38-save effort against Iowa last Friday, and he’s had nights where he’s benefited from Stockton’s high-powered attack, like a 7-5 win at San Diego on March 6.
“There’s been details that he’s focused on in his game and he’s worked hard at them,” said Zulianello. “I think lately, his biggest development is he’s gotten back to what’s made him successful in the past, which is just playing hockey and not thinking or worrying about the things that he can’t control. He’s done a good job of coming in here, playing free and focusing on the next shot. Luckily for us, he’s been playing some of his best hockey to date and giving us a shot at making a playoff run.”
For Gillies, the talent was never an issue, but he needed to quiet his mind. He freely admits to being overly-critical of himself, a trait that has surely helped him reach the heights he has reached in his career. His battle earlier this year, though, was that his criticism — or “extreme realism,” as he puts it — would quickly turn into pessimism.
Earlier in the season, the New Hampshire native couldn’t shake the feeling that he was letting himself, and his team, down. He needed a mental reset, and fortunately for him, that’s where his coach came into play.
“Zuli is always helpful,” Gillies said of Zulianello, who is in his third season with Stockton. “He’s the most positive person I’ve ever met in my life. I don’t understand how anyone has that much positivity, but it’s enviable. He’s been instrumental, being in my ear and reminding me that the results will come. That was the biggest thing, to keep going.”
Away from the rink, Gillies has made a hobby out of driving. Ironically, his success on the ice has come from parking himself, mentally –- taking a moment, processing what he’s seeing and staying on top of what’s going on between his ears while he’s playing.
Stockton’s ascent in the playoff race has come largely thanks to his consistency he’s been able to provide while backstopping a club that had been plagued earlier in the year with conceding goals. Ever since the All-Star break, as Gillies has gone, so have the Heat — and that’s been a good thing.
“Every game I just try to give the team a chance to win,” said Gillies, simplifying his role in a Stockton resurgence in the standings. “Just make one or two saves I shouldn’t make. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 7-5 or 4-1 score.
“It’s just about winning.”