Professional hockey players are unusually even-keeled -- their mantra: Never get too high or too low -- yet the Alaska Aces weren't even going to try to understate the importance of Friday night's 3-1 win over the visiting Colorado Eagles.
Not with their lead in the ECHL standings perilously thin.
Not with their recent results massively mediocre.
And not with Friday's match at Sullivan Arena representing the first of five straight battles with the Eagles -- the teams play Alaska's regular-season home finale Saturday, then three games in Loveland, Colo., next week.
So it was that the Aces' victory, which hinged on a three-goal third period that featured Blair Yaworski's power-play equalizer, Dan Kissel's winning strike and Wes Goldie's empty netter, allowed them to exhale.
With 85 points through 62 games, the Aces (38-15-9) are three points ahead of Ontario (82 points in 61 games) and four points atop Las Vegas (81 points in 62) -- Las Vegas won 2-1 in a shootout at Ontario on Friday night. So, every point is precious, especially considering the Aces close the season with nine straight road games.
"We need every one,'' Goldie said. "At this point, it's crunch time and it's like playoff hockey. It doesn't matter how you do it, just that you do it.''
Yaworski echoed Goldie.
"That was a big win for us to start this last push,'' he said.
On a night when both Aces rookie goaltender James Reid (27 saves) and Colorado's Kyle Jones (30 saves) were razor sharp, an announced crowd of 6,101 referees witnessed the explosive Eagles carry a 1-0 lead into the third period.
Colorado (32-22-6), which leads the league in scoring, got the jump on the Aces with Joey Sides' goal less than eight minutes into the second period. Aaron Slattengren walked off the left wall and into the circle with the puck and back-handed a pass to Sides, who was approaching Reid from the goalie's right. Sides, who began the season in the Netherlands, redirected the puck between Reid's pads for his 10th goal in 17 games with the Eagles.
The Aces finally countered on a power play early in the third period. Yaworski jumped onto the ice on a line change and used his left hand to glove down a Colorado clearing attempt at the Eagles' line. He skated unmolested into the slot and whistled a shot past Jones' blocker.
"It was like slow motion,'' Yaworski said. "No one came to me and no one really moved, and the goalie just shifted a little.''
Puck luck helped furnish Kissel's game-winner with less than eight minutes to go. He got his stick on teammate Chad Anderson's pass at the Colorado line, intending to tip it into the zone to prevent icing. Kissel said the puck deflected off the shin pad of Eagles defenseman Ben Chiarot and into Kissel's skate.
"Kind of a lucky bounce,'' Kissel said.
Kissel, who had the puck deftly poke-checked off his stick by Jones in tight quarters during the second period, said he saw the goalie make a subtle move that indicated he was going for the poke-check again. Kissel faked a forehand shot and slid a backhander into an open net for his 31st goal and a 2-1 lead.
Alaska killed a penalty soon after that and secured the win when Goldie scored his team-leading 32nd goal. The empty netter Goldie roofed -- "I can't shoot low,'' he said with a laugh -- marked the 367th goal of his ECHL career, one shy of tying Rod Taylor's all-time league mark.
Colorado's loss was its first in regulation in 25 games it has led entering the third period.
Shuffling the deck
The Aces played without veteran defenseman Steve Ward, who took a hard hit in last Sunday's shootout loss at Stockton.
With Ward out for the first time all season, Aces veteran defenseman Bryan Miller -- he of the four shoulder surgeries -- is the only Aces skater to play in all 62 games.
"Ironman,'' Miller said, wryly.
The Aces played with 11 forwards and five defensemen instead of the usual complement of 10 and six. All four penalties whistled on the Aces were against defensemen.
Center Ryan Cruthers made his Aces debut after being acquired from Reading in a Thursday trade that sent center Ethan Cox to the Royals. Cruthers had an even rating and no shots -- remember, he flew cross-country, across four time zones, Thursday.
Friday marked the sixth time in 46 ECHL games this season that Colorado's Chad Costello, the circuit's leading scorer, was held without a point.
Colorado's Kevin Ulanski fired a game-high six shots on goal and was the victim of some of Reid's sharpest work. Ulanski also rang a shot off the left post late in the first period.
The teams will play in big crowds for five straight games. Friday's game was a near sellout and tonight's game could be a sellout. Plus, Colorado has sold out every game at the Budweiser Events Center (cap: 5,289) for more than 300 straight games.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Colorado 0 1 0 -- 1
Aces 0 0 3 -- 3
First Period -- None. Penalties -- Markowitz, Aces (slashing), 4:30; Marsh, Aces (tripping), 7:59; Peto, Colorado (interference), 17:59.
Second Period -- 1, Colorado, Sides 10 (Slattengren), 7:32. Penalties -- Nelson, Colorado (hooking), 15:37; Marsh, Aces (slashing), 20:00.
Third Period -- 2, Aces, Yaworski 9, 3:18 (pp); 3, Aces, Kissel 31, 13:38; 3, Aces, Kissel 31, 13:38; 4, Aces, Goldie 32 (Mazzolini, Swanson), 18:47 (en). Penalties -- Chiarot, Colorado (holding the stick), 2:14; Anderson, Aces (slashing), 14:04.
Shots on goal -- Colorado 8-10-10--28. Aces 12-11-10--33.
Power-play Opportunities -- Colorado 0 of 4. Aces 1 of 3.
Goalies -- Colorado, Jones, 27-12-4 (32 shots-30 saves). Aces, Reid, 2-1-1 (28-27).
A -- 6,101 (6,399). T -- 2:15.
Referee -- Ryan Murphy. Linesmen -- Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.