Already short on bodies to begin Thursday night, the Alaska Aces quickly witnessed their depth dinged even more when captain Brian Swanson was injured less than four minutes into the hockey game and never returned.
They promptly responded with -- particularly given the circumstances -- their sharpest performance of the season to rack a 3-0 victory over the Stockton Thunder at Sullivan Arena.
Buoyed by Adam Courchaine's 29 saves for his second shutout this season and simple, smart play required by a team a short bench, the ECHL's leading club pushed its winning streak to a season-best seven straight games.
The Aces (27-5-5) also extended their stretch of games unbeaten in regulation to 11 (8-0-3). Their home-ice winning streak stretched to eight consecutive games. They have also earned at least one point in the standings in 24 of the last 25 games.
"Coming off the ice, I turned to (assistant coach Louis Mass) and said, 'I think that's the best we've played -- period,' " said Aces coach Rob Murray. "We didn't dominate offensively, but we controlled the game, our power play was good, our penalty-killing was exceptional and our goaltending was good.''
The Aces went 2 for 7 on the power play, stymied all four Thunder power plays and received Courchaine's second bagel of the season.
Still, their immediate concern was for their captain, first-line center and power-play quarterback. Swanson, the former NHLer from Eagle River, took a thundering hit to the chest from Stockton winger Garet Hunt shortly after he made a pass to teammate Wes Goldie inside the Stockton blue line. Swanson, tracking his pass, did not appear to see the hit coming and dropped to the ice. He remained down on the ice for a minute or two as trainer Ian Sandercock attended to him, and he eventually returned to the bench, where he sat and appeared in pain.
Hunt appeared to drive his shoulder into Swanson's chest. Whether the hit was late -- Swanson had released the puck -- seemed borderline. No penalty was called on the play.
Swanson later in the period went to the dressing room and did not return. Aces coach Rob Murray said Swanson has an upper-body injury -- nothing broken, Murray said -- and will be unavailable for games tonight and Saturday night against Stockton.
For the Aces, it was distressing to see their leader felled.
"He never puts himself in (vulnerable) positions,'' said Aces alternate captain Steve Ward. "It's demoralizing. He's our backbone, whether it's offensively or defensively. Guys wanted to pick it up for him.''
Swanson's departure left the Aces with just 13 skaters, three shy of the ECHL maximum. And with defenseman Danny Markowitz moving to the wing, that left them with just four defensemen in the pairings of veterans Ward (power-play goal) and Bryan Miller (two assists), and Chad Anderson (assist) and rookie Kane Lafranchise.
"When you go down to four, everybody kind of takes the offensive part of their game out and just worries about defense,'' Ward said. "You just worry about getting the puck out because if you get hemmed in your zone, you're screwed.''
Anderson said relying on just four blueliners simplifies the game.
"You become efficient, and that's the best way,'' Anderson said.
Courchaine, who extended his streak of games without a loss in regulation to 13 (10-0-3), was sharp when tested and intelligent about getting frequent whistles so his teammates had short shifts.
"The guys kept saying, 'Every time you get a chance, freeze the puck,' " Courchaine said.
Stockton (15-14-4), which had its four-game point streak snapped, didn't generate many high-quality chances.
"We weren't into the game enough,'' said Thunder coach Matt Thomas. "How many times do you catch the Aces short-handed? Not often.
"The Aces' power play got the job done and ours didn't, and their penalty kill got the job done and ours didn't.''
Jordan Kremyr staked the Aces to a 1-0 lead midway through the first period after Stockton goalie Olivier Roy (20 saves) made a strong blocker save on Anderson's blast off a Jacques Lamoureux feed. Kremyr banged the rebound through Roy's pads.
The Aces enjoyed some puck luck on their second goal, Nick Mazzolini's power-play strike 28 seconds into the second period. Stockton's Matt Foy blocked Miller's shot from the center point, but the puck ricocheted to Mazzolini atop the right circle -- the puck was on edge, no less -- and he bombed it past Roy's stick.
Ward wrapped the scoring with his power-play one- timer in the third period. Shooting from the bottom of the left circle, off a Miller pass, Ward's shot sneaked between Roy's skate and the left post.
With five Aces players up in the American Hockey League and now three others hurt -- Swanson joins center Ethan Cox and winger Matt Ambroz on the list of injured -- Murray said he'll try to secure a couple of locals for the rest of the series. He was proud of the way his club played after seeing Swanson leave the game in pain.
"I would take the response as the way we played from that point on,'' Murray said.
Shuffling the deck
The shutout was the Aces' fifth this season. Courchaine owns two and Gerald Coleman, up with AHL Lake Erie, owns three.
Aces winger Tyler Ruegsegger was issued a five-minute major for boarding former Aces center Jordan Foreman with 5:20 left in the game. The Thunder were poised to enjoy a three-minute power play -- Ian O'Connor's instigator penalty for fighting Ruegsegger trimmed the power-play time to three minutes from five -- but that was largely negated when Stockton took a penalty for too many men on the ice with 2:09 left.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Stockton 0 0 0 -- 0
Aces 1 1 1 -- 3
First Period -- 1, Aces, Kremyr 8 (Anderson, Lamoureux), 12:18. Penalties -- Pederson, Stockton (delay of game-puck over glass), 3:52; Brodie, Stockton (roughing), 19:17 .
Second Period -- 2, Aces, Mazzolini 11 (Miller, Kissel), :28 (pp). Penalties -- Goldie, Aces (slashing), 2:49; Hunt, Stockton (cross-checking), 5:35; Lafranchise, Aces (hooking), 12:31; Stockton bench minor, served by Matheson (too many men), 17:26; O'Connor, Stockton (hooking), 18:37.
Third Period -- 3, Aces, Ward 4 (Miller, Kissel), 10:08 (pp). Penalties -- Markowitz, Aces (hooking), 2:11; Hunt, Stockton (holding the stick), 2:11; Ward, Aceds (tripping), 7:07; Fratkin, Stockton (goaltender interference), 9:59; Ruegsegger, Aces, served by Lamoureux, major-major (boarding, fighting), 14:40; O'Connor, Stockton, minor-major, served by Owuya (instigator, fighting), 14:40; Stockton bench minor, served by Hunt (too many men), 17:51.
Shots on goal -- Stockton 10-10-9--29. Aces 8-7-8--23.
Power-play Opportunities -- Stockton 0 of 4. Aces 2 of 7.
Goalies -- Stockton, Roy, 7-9-4 (23 shots-20 saves). Aces, Courchaine, 10-1-3 (29-29).
A -- 3,045 (6,399). T -- 2:13.
Referee -- Geoff Miller. Linesmen -- Scott Sivulich, Jason Griffis.