The Alaska Aces' march to the ECHL's Kelly Cup last season hinged significantly on special-teams superiority -- their power play prospered and their penalty killers, well, killed it.
As they prepare to open the playoffs Friday night against the Stockton Thunder, the Aces have comfort and confidence in their penalty killing, which excelled in the stretch run to the postseason.
Their power play -- not so much.
That unit provided some special-teams sputtering.
In the last nine games of the regular season -- all on the road, granted -- the Aces converted on 4 of 45 power-play chances (8.8 percent). The power play went 0 for 17 in the last four games and failed in its last 21 chances with the man advantage in the last four-plus games.
To hear the Aces tell it, their power-play problems stemmed not from lack of opportunity, but from lack of execution.
"Our entries have always been good,'' said Aces coach Rob Murray. "There's never really been an issue of getting in the zone and setting up. We just haven't finished. It becomes a concern going into the playoffs, when special teams are so important.''
Last postseason, the Aces' power play clicked at 22.8-percent efficiency, up from a strong 19.2 percent in the regular season. Their postseason penalty killing operated at 92.7 percent, up from a strong 83.8 percent in the regular season.
This regular season, the Aces' power play checked in at 16.7 percent and their penalty killing worked at 85.7 percent. And while the power play flamed out in the last nine games, the penalty killers operated at 90.9 percent in that stretch.
And that's why there has been an emphasis on the power play as Game 1 approaches.
"We definitely know we need to buckle down,'' said Aces winger Wes Goldie, who led the Aces with 12 power-play strikes, two more than linemate Dan Kissel. "It only takes one to get momentum going, and playoffs are all about momentum. We just have to get the puck to the net -- it could go in off anything.
"We've kind of been playing on the perimeter too much. Everyone seems to be passing. I've got to take more of a shooting approach and get the puck to the net, and I've told Kiss he needs to do the same thing.''
Murray said an efficient power play can tilt not only the score of a game, but can also alter both teams' emotions.
"It's a luxury if your power play is really clicking -- there's confidence that grows throughout the team,'' Murray said. "Every time you get a power play, you have expectations you're going to score. And not only do you have success, but when you get a power play, the other team's like, 'Oh, no.' "
On the flip side, failure to produce on the power play can have fatal consequences.
"When we don't score on the power play, teams hang around, and that's when they're dangerous,'' said Aces winger Nick Mazzolini.
Both Murray and Goldie said the Aces' power-play units were too static down the stretch, too satisfied to pass the puck around the perimeter.
What the Aces need to do better, both men said, is get movement on the power play. That would open seams in the opponents' penalty-killing box -- think back-door opportunities and 2-on-1s down low -- and also get the goaltender moving, which makes him more vulnerable.
"We've got the guys to get it done,'' Murray said. "Now, it's just a matter of doing it.''
Shuffling the deck
Not much of a sample size to judge Stockton's special teams this postseason -- the Thunder swept Colorado in three games -- but here goes: Stockton went 2 of 10 on the power play and its penalty killers allowed that same 2 of 10 from the Eagles.
In the regular season, Stockton's power play operated at 16.7 percent. While that was 15th in the 20-team league, that number is somewhat deceiving -- the Aces were one of five teams that finished at 16.7 percent, but were fractionally higher than the other four and landed 11th. Stockton's penalty killer worked at 81.4 percent in the regular season, good for 12th.
Stockton rookie goaltender Olivier Roy was sharp in the first round, going 3-0-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .943 save percentage to help the Thunder bag the first playoff sweep in franchise history. Max Campbell led Thunder skaters with 4-2--6 totals and dangerous Chris D'Alvise racked 2-3--5 totals.
Stockton bench boss Matt Thomas is 6-5 lifetime against the Aces in the playoffs. He was in charge when Stockton eliminated the Aces 3-1 in a best-of-5, first-round series in 2010 and behind the bench for the Fresno Falcons when the Aces won Game 7 of the conference finals in double overtime on the way to the Kelly Cup in 2006.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
The Alaska Aces' power play was fairly consistent throughout the ECHL's 72-game regular season -- the Aces finished 11th among 20 teams with 16.7-percent power-play efficiency -- but faltered down the stretch. Here's how the club, which converted on 22.8 percent of power-play chances in last season's playoff run to the Kelly Cup, did on the power play in six 12-game segments of this regular season:
Game Nos. Power-play goals/chances Power-play efficiency
1-12 10-51 19.6 percent
13-24 7-51 13.7 percent
25-36 13-67 19.4 percent
37-48 10-51 19.6 percent
49-60 9-52 17.3 percent
61-72 6-57 10.5 percent
Totals 55-239 16.7 percent