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The higher the climb, the harder the next step is to take.

A matchup of the two top teams in the AHL has played out as anticipated thus far with two photo finishes, a pair of foes evenly matched that have gone tit-for-tat throughout 130 minutes of game action. 

In the thin air approaching the American Hockey League summit, Stockton’s task is a tough one: four wins in five games against the league’s regular season championship. But with a record-setting regular season close behind in the rearview mirror, the Heat are far from down-and-out.

“Obviously it stings,” said Justin Kirkland following Game Two. “Two solid games from us. Tonight we really brought a good effort. I thought we maybe deserved better. Obviously it stings, but we have that belief in ourselves. We’re going home for three games now, and we don’t doubt ourselves one bit. We’ve stuck together all year and responded all year really well. We’re excited for the challenge. 

“It’s a bit of adversity but we’re going to have fun with it.”

Two games in, two wins in the bank for the Chicago Wolves, but that’s far from the whole story. In Game One, Stockton gave up the opening goal then rallied to score three straight, only to concede three in a row before answering to force overtime.

In Game Two, the Heat again fell behind 1-0 but responded with consecutive strikes, but a resilient, opportunistic home team tied the game in the second and stole the win with a goal in the final minute. 

The end result may have been the same, the script similar from a bird’s eye view, but captain Byron Froese was undeterred despite the 2-0 hole in the best-of-seven.

“We played a great game (Monday),” said Froese. “We were way better than in the first game. The way we played, we deserved a better fate, but that’s the way it is in the playoffs. We just have to win the next game.

“We’ve learned how important it is to manage the puck. At playoff time, everything is amplified. So sticks on pucks, making sure we’re in the right position, getting pucks in deep is huge. It’s always huge, but it’s bigger right now.”

All season, the Heat have risen to the occasion when they found themselves cornered. Counting the two games in Chicago, they only have suffered consecutive defeats five times since the puck dropped on the 2021-22 campaign. They have yet to see three straight losses.

They’ll head home boasting a perfect 4-0 record in the playoffs at Stockton Arena, looking to hold serve once again on familiar ice. Stockton has absorbed a couple of body blows, but this isn’t a team that’s out of the fight by any means.

“I really liked our response,” said Froese. “We gave up an early one (Monday) but we rebounded right away. We just pushed on. There have been a couple unfortunate bounces here and there, and that’s the difference.

“We just need more of the same. We played a really good game in Game Two. We know we can be better in certain areas, but it was good to see the response.”

No team can win two games in 60 minutes, so the immediate aim is simple: take care of business on Wednesday. There’s no looking past that, and the opportunity to claw back within striking distance on the series scoreboard is a pivotal one.

Coming home, the stakes are clear – it’s do-or-die time for the Heat. That’s a challenge they’re ready for.

“It’s going to be the biggest game of the year, 100-percent,” said Kirkland. “The biggest thing is going to be our start to the game. We don’t want to chase these guys. We need to come out of the gates hot, find that first goal and play with the lead. 

“We’ve stuck together and have such a great group of guys here. We’ve really bonded throughout the year. There’s no doubt in our group right now. It’s exciting going home back to our fans and we’re going to have some fun with it.”

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