Dec. 13, 2017

The Gulls return home from their season-long five-game road trip tonight to host the Stockton Heat in the first of two contests this week at Valley View Casino Center (7 p.m., ESPN 1700-AM). Tonight will mark the first game in 19 days at home for San Diego during a 41-day stretch that sees the Gulls play nine of 13 contests away from the confines of home. Following a successful 3-2 trip that started in California and ended in the Midwest, the Gulls (10-11-1-0, 21 pts.) have won three out of their last four games and are in store for a tough test against the Pacific Division-leading Heat (14-6-0-2, 30 pts.).

“It’s going to be a great test for us,” said Gulls right wing Corey Tropp. “Ever since I have been here (Stockton) have been one of the more physical, demanding teams to play against. For me personally, I enjoy playing against them. We have got to be able to come out and match the intensity that they bring.”

Coming off Saturday’s dramatic 4-3 comeback win in overtime over the Iowa Wild to close out the trip, the Gulls will look to build on a game where they erased a 2-1 deficit entering the third period, and trailed 3-1 in the third, scoring three unanswered goals to for their second win of the season when trailing after two periods.

“Sometimes it takes a win like that to change the mindset, to change the attitude of a locker room,” said Gulls defenseman Steve Oleksy, a veteran of 338 AHL games. “That is what it seemed like after that game. To come back from a couple-goal deficit and to find a way to win. Obviously, taking it to overtime and for (Ryan) White, who brings a lot of energy and a lot of different things to our team, to get that goal, that was a huge spark for us as a team.”

All-time, San Diego has a 10-12-3-1 record against Stockton in 26 matchups since 2015, with San Diego posting a 7-3-2-0 record on home ice. Stockton won the most recent matchup, a 6-3 Heat win at Valley View Casino Center on Nov. 10 against a depleted Gulls lineup. Center Kalle Kossila leads all active Gulls skaters with 12 points (6G/6A) in 16 games. Despite a 1-3 record against Stockton this season, Oleksy believes lineup changes will benefit the Gulls this time around following the additions of centers Eric Fehr and Ryan White, goaltender Reto Berra, defenseman Jaycob Megna, right wing Jared Boll and the return of Tropp from injury.

“We have a little different clientele than we had earlier on in the season,” added Oleksy. “Adding White and adding a guy like Fehr, he’s a big body. I think that’s one of the things about this team. We can play any kind of game. We can play a heavy game, we can play a skill game. I think it’s important to worry more about what we are going to bring versus what they are going to bring.”

The Heat visit San Diego red-hot, having won four of their last five games to vault to the top of the division and second in the Western Conference. Left wing Andrew Mangiapane leads the team in scoring with 26 points (10G/16A) in 22 games . Mangiapane, a sixth round selection (166th overall) of the Calgary Flames in the 2015 NHL Draft, ranks tied for fifth in the AHL in points and is tied for third in the league with a +16 rating. Second in scoring is Slovak center Marek Hrivik who has recorded 23 points (7G/16A) in 20 games.

Between the pipes for Stockton, goaltender Jon Gillies is aiming to continue his stellar season,a s the Concord, N.H. native currently ranks eighth in the AHL with a 2.23 goals-against-average (GAA) and tied seventh in the AHL with a .927 save-percentage (SV%). Gillies is paired in a goalie tandem with Swedish netminder Eddie Lack. Lack, a native of Norrtalje, Sweden, is a veteran of 140 NHL games with Vancouver, Carolina and most recently Calgary, earning a 55-53-18 record with a 2.60 GAA and .909 SV% at the NHL level. In 116 career AHL games with Stockton, Charlotte, Chicago and Manitoba, Lack has a 58-46-1 record with 10 shutouts, a 2.35 GAA and .923 SV%.

One group of players to watch for tonight are San Diego’s eight rookie skaters. The Gulls lead the Pacific Division and rank third among AHL clubs in combined rookie games played this season. The Gulls have dressed eight rookie skaters this season that have combined for 22-45=67 points (22 goals are 33 percent of San Diego’s 66 goals this season). Only Rockford and Hartford have more combined rookie games played, but the Gulls play a 68-game scheduled, as do five other Pacific Division clubs, while the rest of the league players a 76-game schedule.

One of the challenges of icing so many rookies can be keeping up the same level of consistency night-in and night-out. For a veteran like center Eric Fehr, part of his role is showing the younger players the best practices for improving their play. The long-time NHL-er and former Stanley Cup champion knows a thing or about what it will take for the Gulls to get on a roll.

“I think just try and bring a little more consistency,” said Fehr. “I think we have shown some great spurts of how good we can be, and there are times when we are not playing at our best. So I think just trying to find a higher level of consistency and being ready to play every night.”