Getting into playoff form after 13 days without a hockey game was no doubt tough for all the Alaska Aces, but for defenseman Steve Ward and forward Chris Langkow, there was an added challenge.
Both players were sidelined for significant time this season while dealing with concussion symptoms. Before Friday's 2-1 ECHL win over Stockton in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, Ward had only played one game since March 4. Langkow missed nearly four months earlier in the season and also missed the last three games of the regular season.
"The hardest part is not being around the team," Ward said. "I'm at practice, but I'm not on the ice."
Langkow's extended time away from the ice created plenty of physical setbacks, because he wasn't allowed to work out.
"Strength-wise, you kind of lose all your muscle," he said. "It's been a frustrating year for sure. You miss that much time, you lose all the little things."
Langkow and Ward both were members of last year's Kelly Cup championship squad and both played instrumental roles in the Aces' charge through the playoffs. Langkow led the team with eight postseason goals, and Ward racked a goal and assist in Game 5 of the finals.
"That feeling we had when we won last year was one of the best I've ever had in hockey," Langkow said.
Langkow said he felt a jolt of excitement when the Aces got rolling with two third-period goals Friday, but that doesn't mean he can just pick up where he left off last season.
"You can't just expect it to come back," he said. "I'm just taking it day by day. Every game I'll get a little more confident."
Getting the bye for the first round of the playoffs worked perfectly for Ward, who said he used the time to get in shape physically and mentally.
"Every week before the playoffs you dial it up to another level," he said. "I feel great, 100 percent."
Ward earned an assist on the Aces' game-winning goal Friday, clearing the puck out of the Aces' zone on what he called kind of a hectic play. He said he'll take points however he can get them and was thrilled he was able to contribute.
The rest of the Aces are also glad to have Ward and Langkow back on the ice.
"Both those guys are key components for our team," said Aces captain Brian Swanson. "They both were great tonight."
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.