Playoff hockey is returning to the Bay Area! Even with the San Jose Sharks playing out their final stretch of games on the road with no playoff hopes (they were eliminated from playoff contention a month ago) and their minor league team, the San Jose Barracuda finishing at the bottom of their division, the Bay Area will still see May hockey. An hour’s drive northeast of the Bay from San Jose lies the city of Stockton, where the AHL’s Stockton Heat is about to compete in the Calder Cup playoffs.
The AHL, or the American Hockey League, is the league below the NHL. Many NHL players play a handful of games in the AHL over their careers, like current Sharks players Timo Mier and Logan Couture. While the Sharks’ AHL team: the Barracuda, finished last in their division this season, the Stockton Heat finished first.
The Heat are the Calgary Flames AHL affiliate. They’ve played in the pacific division of the AHL since their inception in 2015 when the Adirondack Flames relocated to Stockton to become the Heat. Before this season, the best season the Heat have had was the 2016-17 season, when the Heat qualified for the playoffs with 77 points but were eliminated by the Barracuda in five games.
The Heat this season, however, quite literally turned up the Heat. They have a record of 45 wins, 15 losses, and seven OT/shootout losses. Matthew Phillips is their leading scorer with 30 goals and 37 assists for 67 points. He’s also ninth in the league for points. Rookie Jakob Pelletier is also playing well with 62 points so far this season.
The Heat clinched their second-ever playoff spot on Mar. 19 and clinched the pacific division title on Apr. 23.
The Heat have also had good net performances, especially from young netminder: Dustin Wolf. This season, Wolf has 33 wins, eight losses, and four OT/shootout losses under his belt. He’s rocking a .924 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average. Wolf was born and raised in Gilroy, under two hours away from Stockton. He would go to Sharks games and later play with the L.A. junior Kings when his family moved to southern California.
“From when I started playing, the game has grown tremendously in California,” said Wolf to AHL.com. “It’s huge for guys coming out of here. Kids look up to you. To have them be able to say they live five minutes from where this guy or that guy grew up it’s huge. It creates a ‘Why can’t that be me?’ sort of thing.
Wolf was named a first-team AHL all-star on Feb. 28, the only Heat player ever to do so.
The Heat’s attendance has been strong ever since their inception. The Heat’s attendance has dipped this season, but it’s mainly been due to COVID. Since the city of Stockton dropped their vaccine requirements, the Heat have had great attendance, including their final home regular-season game on April 22, where the Heat lost in overtime to the Abbotsford Canucks.
“It’s great when we get more fans in the building. It’s always more fun to play in front of an atmosphere…Whenever the building is loud, and there’s energy in the crowd, it makes it a lot more fun to be a part of the game from the player’s standpoint,” leading scorer Matthew Phillips said in an interview.
“It’s actually fun! It’s cool to know there’s another hockey team in my backyard. I would 100% go again,” said Sharks fan Aaron Coviano after attending the last home game of the season.
Due to the team winning their division, the Heat get a first-round bye in the AHL playoffs. They will face whatever team is the lowest seed that gets out of the first round. That could mean a California playoff matchup of the San Diego Gulls or the Bakersfield Condors.
Even though they need to wait for the first-round matchups to finish for their playoff story to start, the boys are excited for the return of playoff hockey in Stockton.
“I mean, that’s why you train, and that’s what you play for is playoffs, and that’s when hockey is the most fun and when you get the best out of everybody, so we’re all super excited to play playoff hockey,” Phillips said.