On their march to the Kelly Cup last season, the Alaska Aces won all six of their playoff games at Sullivan Arena. This regular season, they fashioned the ECHL's best home-ice record. And, historically, they are always a difficult bunch to beat on the Olympic-sized rink they call home, where they seem to get a lift from their raucous, cowbell-ringing supporters.
For the Aces, Sullivan is home-ice hockey heaven, and the definition of home-ice advantage.
Friday night, they added another chapter to their legacy of stirring comebacks at Sullivan, striking back from a one-goal, third-period deficit to beat the Stockton Thunder, 2-1, in the opener of a Western Conference semifinal series.
Garry Nunn's knuckling wrister from the right wing fluttered between the right arm and body of Thunder goaltender Olivier Roy with about three minutes to go to deliver victory in the best-of-7 series that continues Saturday night at Sullivan.
The goal capped a game that was scoreless for nearly 49 minutes before the teams traded goals three minutes apart midway through the third period.
Though the crowd was about 1,500 shy of a sellout, fans were so throaty they still made the building seem full and seemed to buoy the Aces after Greg Squires' first pro goal gave Stockton a 1-0 lead.
"As a player, you can't say enough about how much that means,'' Aces alternate captain Steve Ward. "When they're loud like that and (public address announcer Bob Lester) is telling them to be loud, it just gives you that little extra something.
"Everyone wants to be the hero.''
Nunn filled the role, but Dan Kissel set the stage with his equalizer and Gerald Coleman (25 saves) overcame a shaky start to provide the kind of stingy goaltending that last postseason generated the second Kelly Cup in franchise history.
Just after Stockton pinned Alaska deep in the Aces' zone for an extended period, the Aces finally worked the puck free. Passes from Ward and Zach Harrison allowed the speedy Nunn to set sail on right wing. As Nunn entering the Thunder zone 1-on-1 against a Thunder defenseman, he toe-dragged the puck onto his forehand and whistled a low 40-footer.
"To be honest, the guy had a pretty good gap on me, so I wasn't going to beat him wide,'' Nunn said. "I was shooting for low on the far side, and it kind of looked like it fluttered a little bit.
"It seemed like it hit a stick, but I don't know. I probably got some luck on that, but I don't care.''
Nunn's goal capped a third period in which the Aces fired 12 shots, one fewer than their total through two periods.
"Let's face it, the winner was a knuckler that found a way in,'' said Stockton coach Matt Thomas. "But they deserve it. They played a good third period and put the push on after we scored.
"That's the mark of a good team.''
Roy (23 saves) otherwise played a strong game, and he had puck luck on his side too -- Kissel struck the crossbar, and Ryan Cruthers and Ward clanged shots off the left post.
The loss was the first of the postseason for the Thunder, who swept the Colorado Eagles in three games in a first-round series for the first playoff sweep in franchise history.
Friday's game marked the Aces' postseason debut after a 13-day layoff since the end of the regular season. They received a first-round bye for the second straight season, courtesy of their Western Conference regular-season title.
Stockton broke the scoreless tie when Squires, fresh out of Western Michigan University, copped his first play-for-pay goal. Coleman came out to the top of his crease to stop Cameron Brodie's drive from the center point and pushed the rebound to his right. Squires collected the puck on his backhand just behind the goal line, quickly moved it to his forehand and tucked it inside the left post before a diving Coleman could get his stick on the shot.
Nunn said he momentarily lost his man, Squires, "so I'll take the blame for that.''
The crowd brought the noise on the next shift, and the Aces seemed to respond to both the decibel level and their deficit.
"We've been able to pick it up when we have to,'' said Aces winger Wes Goldie. "Sometimes, you need that goal against to get that giddy-up in your step.''
Goldie's wraparound at the left post three minutes after Squires' goal -- his bid zipped through the blue paint behind Roy -- initiated a chaotic sequence in Roy's crease.
Goldie soon got off a backhander that Roy stopped, and captain Brian Swanson whacked a rebound off Roy's pads as a delayed penalty was coming against Stockton. Kissel, stationed on the edge of the crease, punched the second rebound into the net for a 1-1 tie.
"If you're going to get playoff goals, that's where they're going to come,'' Kissel said of his crease-crashing.
Friday's game was indicative of the 10 regular-season series between the clubs -- the Aces went 5-4-1 in those games and the Thunder 5-5-0. They both scored 26 goals in those 10 games.
"They're relentless,'' Ward said. "They're a lot like we are.''
And the Thunder, who must win a road game to win the series, expect to make it hard on the Aces again Saturday night.
"The good thing about our team,'' Thomas said, "is we don't feel defeated. We lost the battle, but the war is still going.''
Shuffling the deck
Goldie, who this season became the ECHL's all-time leading goal scorer, was honored for that piece of history in a pre-game ceremony.
The Aces are 4-0 against the Thunder at Sullivan this season.
Former Aces goaltender Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, who backstopped the club to Game 7 of the Kelly Cup Finals in 2009, when he was the circuit's Goaltender of the Year, was in the house. His brother, Jacques, a forward who played 12 games for the Aces this season and furnished 3-2--5 and plus-4 totals, is in the Air Force and stationed here.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Stockton 0 0 1 -- 1
Aces 0 0 2 -- 2
First Period -- None. Penalties -- Aces bench minor, served by Nunn (too many men), 11:57.
Second Period -- None. Penalties -- Hunt, Stockton (interference), 1:53; Mazzolini, Aces (slashing), 5:59; D'Alvise, Stockton (tripping), 7:04.
Third Period -- 1, Stockton, Squires 1 (Brodie, Lowery), 8:57; 2, Aces, Kissel 1 (Swanson, Goldie), 12:10; 3, Aces, Nunn 1 (Harrison, Ward), 16:52. Penalties -- Marsh, Aces (tripping), 3:11.
Shots on goal -- Stockton 9-10-7--26. Aces 6-7-12--25.
Power-play Opportunities -- Stockton 0 of 3. Aces 0 of 2.
Goalies -- Stockton, Roy, 3-1 (25 shots-23 saves). Aces, Coleman, 1-0 (26-25).
A -- 4,872 (6,399). T -- 2:16.
Referee -- Frederic Leblanc. Linesmen - Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.