Everyone involved in these ECHL Kelly Cup Finals -- hockey players, coaches, staff and fans -- is waiting to exhale, thanks to a series that is dizzy with drama and headed for a Game 7 finale.Of course, that Final moment apparently will come with a caveat -- namely, will this breathtaking series leave anyone with air to expel?
The Alaska Aces avoided elimination yet again Thursday night, when they stormed back from an early two-goal deficit and used Matt Stefanishion's sublime goal late to beat the South Carolina Stingrays 3-2 in Game 6 at Sullivan Arena.
Not that Stefanishion's strike with less than four minutes remaining brought the show before a cowbell-ringing, standing-room-only crowd of 6,610 to a climax.
An apparent tying goal by the Stingrays at the horn was immediately waved off by referee Andy Thiessen. Thiessen ruled the puck was batted in with a high stick as Stingrays Michael Dubuc and Brad Farynuk waved their sticks at the biscuit. It appeared, also, that time perhaps had ran out before the puck crossed the goal line behind Aces rookie goaltender Jean-Philippe Lamoureux (20 saves).
"Thank God,'' Stefanishion said. "Finally, we got a call on our side.''
In a 4-2 Game 1 loss at Sullivan, the Aces thought they had scored a game-tying goal inside the last two minutes before the Stingrays cinched victory with an empty-net goal.
"Alaska had the same thing happen to them in the first game,'' said Stingrays defenseman Patrick Wellar, who helped the Aces to the Cup in 2006. "This series is amazing. Every game has been one bounce away.
"Both teams are great defensively and have great goaltending. It's been a roller-coaster of emotions. It's one bounce, one shift, or a nice play like Stefanishion's -- tip your hat to him.''
Thursday's ending seemed almost fitting in a best-of-7 series in which five of the six matches have been basically decided by one goal. The only exception was South Carolina's 5-0 win in Game 4 last week in North Charleston.
The Aces' win marked their second straight escape from elimination. They won Game 5 in South Carolina last week, courtesy of Colin Hemingway's goal deep in overtime.
Tonight, the Aces attempt to become just the second team in the league's 21-season history to fall behind 3-1 in the Finals and rebound to hoist hardware. The Mississippi Sea Wolves managed that fantastic feat against the Richmond Renegades in 1999. It took the Sea Wolves double overtime in Game 7 to prevail, perhaps a harbinger of what awaits tonight.
Alaska lived for another night courtesy of Lamoureux's stellar work after a shaky start; a push from the largest crowd to witness a hockey game at Sullivan in its 26-year history; goals from Lance Galbraith and Josh Soares; and Stefanishion's dance through the South Carolina defense.
The game was tied 2-2 when Stefanishion, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder best known for his lethal slap shot, accepted a pass in the neutral zone from center Vladimir Novak. Stefanishion needed to settle the bouncing puck on his blade as he hit the South Carolina blue line -- otherwise, he said, he likely would have unleashed a slapper. Instead, he marched through the defense and flicked a backhander off goalie Jonathan Boutin (36 saves) for a goal at the 16:23 mark.
"I don't know how it went in,'' Stefanishion said. "The puck bobbled, and I went by the D-man and somehow got it in the net. That's one of the biggest goals of my life.''
Stefanishion's fifth goal of the postseason capped a comeback in which the Aces found themselves trailing 2-0 less than eight minutes into the match.
Former UAA skater Spencer Carbery banked a shot from below the goal line off Lamoureux's left skate to give the visitors a 1-0 lead 6:43 into the game. Just 38 seconds later, center Travis Morin, who as a college player for Minnesota State-Mankato tortured UAA, took a smooth pass from Maxime Lacroix and wristed a shot into a yawning net.
The Aces received a critical goal late in the first period, when winger Lance Galbraith deflected in Stefanishion's bomb from the top of the left circle to close the gap to 2-1.
"That's a momentum changer,'' Stefanishion said. "The first goal for any team is huge -- it's like a sigh of relief.''
The Aces' tying goal was generated by a man at the center of a subplot -- veteran defenseman Matt Shasby. Aces coach Keith McCambridge made Shasby, a second-team All-ECHL blueliner, a healthy scratch in Game 5 but stuck him back in the lineup Thursday.
Shasby, an alternate captain, carried the puck into South Carolina's zone on left wing early in the second period, cruising in on one of his patented rushes. He fed Soares in the slot, and Soares banked a shot off the left post and behind Boutin for his first goal of the Finals, his team-leading 10th of the playoffs and a 2-2 tie. The strike also snapped Soares' six-game goal drought, his second longest in two seasons with the club.
McCambridge said he penciled Shasby into the lineup because he expected a strong performance from the fourth-year Ace.
"Because I knew the response I was going to get out of him,'' McCambridge said. "That's the Matt Shasby I'm used to seeing for four years.''
Shasby said he simply tried to play his usual game and not over-react by trying to do too much.
"Thankfully, I got to play another hockey game, and it's a dream come true to play a Game 7 in Sullivan Arena,'' Shasby said.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
South Carolina 2 0 0 -- 2
Aces 1 1 1 -- 3
First Period -- 1, South Carolina, Carbery 5, 6:43; 2, South Carolina, Morin 4 (Lacroix, Farynuk), 7:21; 3, Aces, Galbraith 9 (Stefanishion, Keith), 17:59. Penalties -- Dubuc, South Carolina (tripping), 3:33; Kroll, South Carolina (interference), 8:52; Marsh, Aces (slashing), 8:52; Fast, Aces (hooking), 15:44; Carbery, South Carolina (elbowing), 15:44; Farynuk, South Carolina (interference), 15:59.
Second Period -- 4, Aces, Soares 10 (Shasby), 3:56 (pp). Penalties -- Dubuc, South Carolina (charging), 2:44; Stefanishion, Aces (roughing), 4:25; Morin, South Carolina (hooking), 16:02; Stefanishion, Aces (boarding), 16:02; Pokulok, South Carolina (cross-checking), 17:09; South Carolina bench minor, served by Scherer (too many men), 19:43.
Third Period -- 5, Aces, Stefanishion 5 (Novak, Martin), 16:23. Penalties - Kana, Aces (high-sticking), 9:22; Turek, Aces (hooking), 17:16; Martin, Aces (roughing), 19:54; Carbery, South Carolina (roughing), 19:54.
Shots on goal -- South Carolina 11-6-5--22. Aces 16-9-13--38.
Power-play Opportunities -- South Carolina 0 of 4; Aces 1 of 7.
Goalies -- South Carolina, Boutin, 12-4 (38 shots-36 saves). Aces, Lamoureux, 15-5 (22-20).
A -- 6,610 (6,410). T -- 2:33.
Referee -- Andy Thiessen. Linesmen -- Steve Glines, Will Moran.