The What's-Not-To-Like file was startlingly thin for the Alaska Aces by game's end Wednesday night.
A 4-0 road playoff victory will do that.
Gerald Coleman held the Stockton Thunder in check with 22 saves for his first shutout this postseason, so goaltending was not an issue -- though, really, is it ever?
The Aces got to Stockton's Olivier Roy for four goals, matching their total in the first two hockey games of the ECHL Western Conference semifinal series, so their confidence got massaged.
Alaska also scored on the power play, which has been a man-advantage albatross of late. Ryan Cruthers' first-period goal to open the scoring snapped a streak of 27 consecutive fruitless power plays dating back to the regular season, so the Aces don't have to lug around that baggage any longer.
The Aces also received goals from all three of their forward lines and points from three defensemen, permitted the Thunder two power plays and refused to get suckered into silliness when the game was in hand in the final minutes.
And in the final two periods at Stockton Arena, the Aces outshot the Thunder 31-9 on the way to a 40-22 advantage for the match.
"It was very efficient -- that's a good way to put it,'' Aces coach Rob Murray said by cellphone.
All that helped the Aces, who lost home-ice advantage with a 3-2 overtime defeat Saturday night, regain possession of home-ice advantage and seize a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series that continues Friday night with Game 4 in California.
No matter what happens Friday, or Saturday night in Game 5, Alaska's victory Wednesday assured it can do no worse than bring the series back to Anchorage.
"That's huge, because if you don't get the first one (in Stockton), the pressure mounts Friday, and if you can't get that one, then you're really up against it,'' Murray said. "I hope we can run with this one.''
Historically, a 2-1 series advantage has historically worked nicely for franchise. Four previous times in Alaska's nine-season ECHL history it has led a series 2-1, and it won all four of those series -- three of those series were best-of-7, one was best-of-5.
Goaltending and defense have sustained the defending Kelly Cup champions the last two seasons, and they returned to those roots Wednesday. After giving up an abundance of scoring chances in Saturday night's loss -- only Coleman's excellence pushed that game to extra time -- the Aces clamped down on the Thunder in Game 3.
Coleman did not have to be nearly as spectacular as he was in Game 2. Wednesday, he proved steady and composed, as usual, and did not spill rebounds. He used a snappy second-period glove save on Mike Little and a third-period, left-pad denial on Chris D'Alvise, who authored Saturday's overtime goal, to deliver his fourth shutout in the last two postseasons.
"I think we got back to the way we know we can play, and played our systems and did all the little things you have to do this time of year,'' said Aces captain Brian Swanson.
Though play was sloppy and slow early, and Stockton outshot Alaska 13-9 in the opening 20 minutes, the Aces took the lead on Cruthers' goal and strengthened their hold on the game with a three-goal outburst in the third period. Two of those goals, from Wes Goldie and Nick Mazzolini, came in a 19-second span so early in the period the ice was barely dry from the resurfacing at intermission.
"We just kept plugging away and grinding away, knowing the puck will go in,'' Swanson said.
Cruthers' goal came off helpers from Garry Nunn (two assists) and Nick Mazzolini (one goal, one assist) midway through the first period, after Jordan Fulton was whistled for interference on Coleman.
Mazzolini made a behind-the-back feed from the right boards to Nunn between the face-off circles. Nunn's quick shot was deflected and sent airborne by the stick of a Stockton defenseman. Cruthers gloved it down near the left post and punched a quick shot past Roy (36 saves) on the short side.
That's why Alaska acquired Cruthers from the Reading Royals in exchange for fellow center Ethan Cox late in the regular season -- to score goals. Wednesday's goal was Cruthers' 14th playoff strike in 27 postseason games during the last three seasons.
That 1-0 lead held until 66 seconds into the third period, when Goldie, the league's all-time leading goal scorer, did his thing.
Goldie took a stretch pass from defenseman Tyson Marsh -- it was Marsh's boarding penalty that led to D'Alvise's overtime goal Saturday -- and busted down the left wing in Stockton's zone. With defenseman Nathan Deck steaming toward Goldie to cut him off, Goldie put on the brakes, let Deck skitter past and beat Roy with a low shot off the left post.
Just 19 seconds later, Mazzolini deflected defenseman Bryan Miller's drive from atop the right circle to balloon the lead to 3-0. Rookie winger Jordan Kremyr added his first pro playoff goal with the teams skating 4-on-4 late in the period, outmuscling defenseman Rob Kwiet and slipping a shot past Roy.
Shuffling the deck
Rookie winger Chris Bruton, playing his first game for the Aces since Dec. 23 after being loaned to them by Peoria of the American Hockey League, made an immediate impact.
He assisted on Kremyr's goal, fired three shots on goal, furnished tough work along the boards and served as a deterrent to Stockton pest Garet Hunt.
Hunt immediately welcomed Bruton back to the ECHL. As Bruton arrived at the center circle for the opening face-off of the game, Hunt greeted him with a shove. After Roy gloved Bruton's long wrister for a whistle early, Hunt gave him another shove. Referee Joe Sullivan sent both players to their respective dressing rooms after they traded slashes in the final minute.
Goldie is the only player in the series with a point in all three games.
Stockton's loss was its first in three home playoff games this season.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces 1 0 3 -- 4
Stockton 0 0 0 -- 0
First Period -- 1, Aces, Cruthers 1 (Nunn, Mazzolini), 11:37 (pp). Penalties -- Brodie, Stockton (interference), 5:42; Fulton, Stockton (goaltender interference), 10:45.
Second Period -- None. Penalties -- Hunt, Stockton (delay of game-puck over glass), 8:01.
Third Period -- 2, Aces, Goldie 1 (Marsh), 1:06; 3, Aces, Mazzolini 2 (Miller, Nunn), 1:25; 4, Aces, Kremyr 1 (Lafranchise, Bruton), 14:42. Penalties -- Lafranchise, Aces (interference), 6:14; Hunt, Stockton (roughing), 12:50; Nunn, Aces (high-sticking), 12:58; Fulton, Stockton, double-minor, served by Levesque (cross-checking, unsportsmanlike conduct), 16:03; Miller, Aces (unsportsmanlike conduct), 16:03; D'Alvise, Stockton, misconduct-game misconduct (unsportsmanlike conduct), 16:03; Lowery, Stockton (interference), 19:33; Hunt, Stockton (slashing), 19:38; Bruton, Stockton (slashing), 19:38.
Shots on goal -- Aces 9-15-16--40. Stockton 13-4-5--22.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 1 of 6. Stockton 0 of 2.
Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 2-1 (22 shots-22 saves). Stockton, Roy, 4-2 (40-36).
A -- 3,255 (9,737). T -- 2:26.
Referee -- Joe Sullivan. Linesmen -- Todd Owen, Wally Lacroix.