Saturday night's regular-season finale held virtually no significance for the Alaska Aces, who had already seized all three of the ECHL's available titles and merely hoped to keep their injury list status quo.
But the road hockey game against the Ontario Reign was on the schedule -- it actually was a critical match for Ontario -- and so the Aces pulled on their gear and finished the 72-game grind of the regular season.
The Aces lost, 6-1, for their most lopsided defeat of the season, but the game at Citizens Business Bank Arena proved a success for the league's regular-season champs -- initial reports indicated no Aces were injured.
Ontario (43-21-8) won the Pacific Division title, gaining it the No. 2 playoff seed in the Western Conference, no small accomplishment for a franchise that failed to make the playoffs the two previous seasons.
Alaska (43-18-11) on Friday night secured their second straight Brabham Cup as the league's regular-season champs. The Aces added that hardware to their Western Conference and Mountain Division titles to complete the same hat trick they racked as a prelude to the Kelly Cup championship last season.
Now, the Aces have two weeks before their next game -- they enjoy a first-round playoff bye for the second straight season -- but they won't be idle. They'll return to Anchorage and begin practicing in anticipation of the best-of-7 conference semifinals, which open April 13 at Sullivan Arena against the winner of a best-of-5, first-round series between the Colorado Eagles and Stockton Thunder.
The Aces also hope to get back some bodies. Veteran defenseman Steve Ward, center Chris Langkow and winger Matt Ambroz have been out with concussion symptoms, and center Nick Mazzolini has been sidelined with a back issue.
Captain Brian Swanson missed Saturday's game to attend the funeral of his grandfather in Santa Barbara, Calif.
All that left coach Rob Murray with 15 skaters -- one short of the ECHL maximum -- and an unusual complement of eight forwards and seven defensemen. Teams that dress 16 skaters usually break it down to 10 forwards and six defensemen.
In any event, Murray in each period Saturday employed on the wing a skater who is a defenseman by trade -- Bryan Miller, Brandon Gentile and Kane Lafranchise took 20-minute turns on the flank. Gentile scored Alaska's only goal, a second-period fluke that ricocheted off the stick of Reign defenseman Vincent LoVerde and past Jean-Francois Berube, who was stellar in making 38 saves.
Derek Couture scored two goals and added an assist for Ontario to give him a club-record 60 points this season. Eagle River's Bill Bagron, Chris Cloud, former Aces training-camp defenseman Alan Mazur and Geoff Irwin also scored goals for Ontario.
Shuffling the deck
Here are the Western Conference best-of-5, first-round playoff series, with seedings in parentheses:
(2) Ontario vs. (7) Idaho, (3) Las Vegas vs. (6) Utah, (4) Colorado vs. (5) Stockton. Bakersfield is the only team in the West that did not qualify for the postseason.
Former Aces center Ethan Cox, traded to Reading for Ryan Cruthers last month, willed the Royals into the playoffs Saturday with a hat trick that marked his first goals in his eight ECHL games since the trade. Reading's 6-4 win over Trenton, coupled with Chicago's 3-2 overtime loss to Cincinnati later Saturday night copped the Royals the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The hat trick was Cox's second as a pro -- he scored three goals in an 8-4 victory over Ontario at Sullivan Arena on Nov. 11, 2011. His eight shots on goal Saturday also marked his career high, two more than he had ever unleashed in any of his previous 116 ECHL games.
Aces goaltender Gerald Coleman won the league's goals-against average title at 1.93 per game.
Aces leading scorer Dan Kissel, who tied for seventh in the league in scoring with 35-33--68 totals in 70 games and fired a game-high six shots on goal Saturday, finished second in the league to Stockton's Kevin Baker in shots. Baker fired 293 shots in 68 games for an average of 4.31 shots per game. Kissel checked in at 278 shots in 70 games (3.97 per) and Aces winger Wes Goldie was seventh in shots with 244 in 70 games (3.49 per).
Lafranchise tied for eighth in the league in plus-minus at plus-20. Miller, the veteran blueliner, was the only Ace to play in all 72 games.
The Aces will presumably be working extensively on their power play while awaiting their playoff opponent. They went 0 for 5 Saturday, went 1 of 28 in their last five games and 4 of 45 in their last nine games.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces 0 1 0 -- 1
Ontario 2 2 2 -- 6
First Period -- 1, Ontario, Cloud 8 (Bagron), 13:40; 2, Ontario, Couture 28 (Stretch, Estrada), 18:20. Penalties -- None.
Second Period -- 3, Ontario, Mazur 2 (Stretch, Couture), 3:36 (pp); 4, Aces, Gentile 3, 6:19; 5, Ontario, Couture 29, 18:00. Penalties -- Harrison, Aces (high-sticking), 2:56; Harrison, Aces (slashing), 4:17; Cloud, Ontario (mouthguard violation), 8:17; Irwin, Ontario (slashing), 9:44; Hall, Aces (slashing), 10:58.
Third Period -- 6, Ontario, Bagron 27 (Cloud, Irwin), 10:26; 7, Ontario, Irwin 19, 16:01 (sh). Penalties -- Huxley, Ontario (roughing), 3:09; Cruthers, Aces (roughing), 3:09; Goldie, Aces (high-sticking), 7:21; Stretch, Ontario, double-minor (tripping, roughing), 12:03; Cloud, Ontario (roughing), 17:51; Olson, Ontario (roughing), 17:51; Kremyr, Aces (slashing), 17:51.
Shots on goal -- Aces 13-14-12--39. Ontario 8-6-9--23.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 0 of 5. Ontario 1 of 4.
Goalies -- Aces, Reid, 6-2-1 (23 shots-17 saves). Ontario, Berube, 17-13-4 (39-38).
A -- 9,592 (9,592). T -- 2:19.
Referee -- J.M. McNulty. Linesmen -- James Parker, Michel Voyer.