Seven months ago, Scott Howes couldn't even crack Stockton's lineup.
Now, he's cracking goaltenders, furnishing late-game, hockey heroics and spearheading the Alaska Aces' drive to the ECHL's Kelly Cup Finals.
Howes scored two goals Monday night, including the game-winning backhander with 34.9 seconds left to spur a series-sweeping 3-2 victory at Victoria that seized the Western Conference championship and catapulted the Aces into the Kelly Cup Finals for the third time in the last six seasons.
Howes delivered the strike that killed his old club. He played his first two seasons of pro pucks for the Salmon Kings -- though he was under contract to Manitoba of the American Hockey League -- and his former team is likely history because a major-junior Western Hockey League franchise is moving into the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in the provincial capital.
The Aces have won all eight of their playoff games -- they swept the Idaho Steelheads in four games after a first-round bye -- but they specialized in thrillers against the Salmon Kings.
Howes' assist set up Brian Swanson's game-winning strike with 8.9 seconds left in Game 1 last week. Chris Langkow pierced the Salmon Kings with an overtime dagger for a 4-3 win in Game 2. In a 6-2 win in Game 3 at Victoria on Saturday that marked the only lopsided game of the series, Howes scored one goal and added three helpers. Monday, Swanson returned Howes' Game 1 favor when he set up his linemate's series-ending goal, which was Howes' team-leading seventh goal of the postseason.
After Dan Kissel, who scored Alaska's first goal, worked the puck out of the right-wing corner, it ricocheted to Swanson on the goal line to the left of Victoria goaltender David Shantz. Swanson immediately relayed the puck to Howes at the top of the crease. Howes accepted it on his forehand, quickly went to his backhand and shoveled a shot over Shantz's glove, which Shantz had flashed to twice rob Howes in the opening five minutes of the third period.
"He got me good twice, but finally I got one in,'' Howes said by cell phone. "I figured I'd try one more time.''
All that did was give Howes 4-6--10 totals in four games against Victoria, elevate his playoff totals to 7-8--15 in eight games and extend his point streak, dating back to the regular season, to 14 games. He has racked 7-16--23 totals during that stretch.
And to think Aces coach Brent Thompson plucked Howes from Stockton for future considerations, which in the ECHL usually means a $100, maybe $200. For that inconsequential sum, Howes in 67 total games with the Aces this season has exploded for 29-44--73 totals.
"I guess I'm playing with a little more confidence,'' Howes said. "I can see the coaches and the players have confidence in me, and I don't want to let them down.''
Howes has made such strides that Thompson has used him to kill penalties the last two games, something that was unimaginable a few months ago when the third-year pro was, in Thompson's words, a defensive liability.
"We believe in him, his linemates and teammates believe in him, and he believes in himself,'' Thompson said. "He's willing to go through the learning curve to get better. He's been great on both sides of the puck.''
The Aces, who had a 13-day layoff between their last regular-season game and their playoff opener, now face another wait.
Their Kelly Cup Finals opponent will come out of the Eastern Conference showdown between the Wheeling Nailers and Kalamazoo Wings, who are tied 1-1 in a best-of-7 series. The earliest that series can end is Sunday and the latest it can go is Wednesday, May 11.
Alaska will own home-ice-advantage in the Finals, just as it has in its prior two series, by virtue of its Brabham Cup as the best regular-season team on the 19-club circuit.
The wait is cool with Thompson, who was down to eight forwards in the third period when league MVP Wes Goldie and Ethan Cox were shut down with upper-body injuries that left them day-to-day. That's why Thompson used All-ECHL second-team defenseman Bryan Miller at wing in the third period.
To this point, the Aces certainly have issued a strong argument as the hottest team in the league. In their last 36 games, which equates to half an ECHL season, they have gone a remarkable 31-4-1.
Much of that dominance has been predicated on team defense and goaltending, and those signature qualities were on display yet again Monday.
Goaltender of the Year Gerald Coleman stopped 23 shots, including a third-period penalty shot by former Aces defenseman Ryan Turek, to win his seventh game of the postseason.
The Aces, the league's stingiest defensive team in the regular season, have surrendered just nine goals in eight playoff games. Monday, they killed all four Victoria power plays, and have killed 24 of 25 in the playoffs.
Kissel's first-period goal, on a 2-on-1 after he swiped Milan Gajic's turnover in neutral ice, and Howes' power-play strike furnished the Aces a 2-0 lead.
Victoria edged back on Derek Couture's second-period deflection and Chad Klassen's third-period, sharply angled squeaker, which slipped between Coleman's arm and body at the left post.
Then Howes came to the rescue with his game winner.
"It felt unbelievable,'' he said. "We worked so hard for it all season, and all night.''
But the Aces' work isn't done, which Thompson said Howes quickly noted afterward.
"Coming into the room, he yelled, with enthusiasm, 'That's one more step. We've got one more to go,' '' Thompson recounted.
Shuffling the deck
Aces captain Scott Burt, second all-time in league history with 99 Kelly Cup playoff games, sat out with an upper-body injury. Burt usually kills penalties with rookie center Ethan Cox. With Burt out, Howes paired with Cox on a penalty-killing tandem.
Rookie winger Matt Ambroz, fresh out of Nebraska-Omaha, made his pro debut and served as the Aces' 10 th forward. Rookie winger Kory Falite moved into Burt's spot on a line with rookie Cox and rookie right winger Tyler Ruegsegger.
Thompson said Goldie should be fine for the Finals. Ditto for Cox, who absorbed a wicked, clean hit from Turek at center ice in the third period and wobbled his way back to the bench.
Goldie has not scored a goal in seven games, the longest drought of the season for the league's leading sniper in the regular season. But his assist on Howes' first-period goal gave the veteran eight helpers in his five-game point streak. Swanson has delivered 3-2--5 totals in his four-game point streak.
The Aces have played 482 minutes, 15 seconds of hockey in the playoffs and trailed for just 18:50.
Winning Monday after leading 2-1 through two periods means the Aces all season have gone 45-0-0 when leading after two periods.
In the franchise's two previous trips to the Kelly Cup Finals, the Aces hoisted the hardware in 2006 by beating the Gwinnett Gladiators in five games. In 2009, they lost Game 7 to the South Carolina Stingrays.
Bad penalties plagued Victoria in the series. Of the 19 power plays they gave the Aces, 11 came from offensive-zone penalties. Penalties taken 150 or more feet from a team's own net are the ones that make coaches old before their time.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces 2 0 1 -- 3
Victoria 0 1 1 -- 2
First Period -- 1, Aces, Kissel 2, 13:02; 2, Aces, Howes 6 (Goldie, Miller), 14:16 (pp). Penalties -- Painchaud, Victoria (roughing), 6:40; Fraser, Aces (hooking), 11:37; Caister, Victoria (interference), 12:02; Waugh, Victoria (tripping), 14:01; Cox, Aces (interference), 14:26; McLeod, Victoria (interference), 16:04; Aspenlind, Victoria (cross-checking), 17:25.
Second Period -- 3, Victoria, Couture 1 (Waugh, McLeod), 1:01. Penalties -- Coleman, Aces, served by Langkow (delay of game), 13:13; McLeod, Victoria (interference), 13:51; Falite, Aces (tripping), 18:31.
Third Period -- 4, Victoria, Klassen 3 (Martin), 9:43; 5, Aces, Howes 7 (Swanson, Kissel), 19:25. Penalties -- None.
Missed penalty shot -- Turek, Victoria, 6:04 third period.
Shots on goal -- Aces 20-6-11--37. Victoria 5-12-8--25.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 1 of 6; Victoria 0 of 4.
Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 7-0-0 (25 shots-23 saves). Victoria, Shantz, 7-4-1 (37-34).
A -- 3,153 (7,006). T -- 2:21.
Referee -- Graham Skilliter. Linesmen -- Francis Trempe, Kirk Van Helvoirt.