With the ECHL trade deadline looming last month, Alaska Aces coach Rob Murray acquired center Ryan Cruthers for his scoring in general and his playoff pedigree on that front in particular.
Thursday night in Las Vegas, the deal that cost the Aces popular center Ethan Cox kept paying dividends.
Cruthers delivered both Aces goals, including the game-winning deflection with four minutes remaining at Orleans Arena, to spearhead a 2-1 victory over the Wranglers in the opener of the best-of-7 Western Conference finals.
The Aces' fourth straight postseason win, all on the road, seized them home-ice advantage, no matter how you calculate that benefit.
Rink-availability issues for both clubs caused the Aces to surrender the home-ice advantage they earned as the league's top team in the regular season. Alaska and Las Vegas also scrapped the traditional 2-3-2 series format -- two home games for the higher seed (Alaska), three for the lower seed (Las Vegas) and two for the higher seed.
Instead, the series opened in Las Vegas and sports a 2-4-1 format -- Vegas-Anchorage-Vegas -- and that means Alaska's Game 1 victory proved particularly pivotal for the defending Kelly Cup champions entering Game 2 Friday night.
"This is a huge win,'' Cruthers said by cellphone from Sin City. "Anytime you go on the road, you want to win, and especially the first game.
"It kind of puts them on their heels, and now we have to follow it up and come out and try to get another win.''
With Alaska's Gerald Coleman (25 saves) and Las Vegas' Joe Fallon (30 saves) furnishing their customary stingy goaltending, the hockey game was tied 1-1 deep into the third period when Aces defenseman Tyson Marsh held the puck in at the Las Vegas blue line. Marsh snapped a quick shot from the middle of the rink and Cruthers, stationed between the circles at the hashmarks, deflected the waist-high shot past Fallon.
Cruthers' two goals -- he opened the scoring with a power-play rocket in the second period -- gives him a team-high four goals in the Aces' six playoff games. No surprise there. In 30 playoff games the last three postseasons, Cruthers has generated 17 goals and 37 points.
He said his wife, Julie, gets the primary assist for his move to the Aces in search of a championship after three seasons in Reading.
"I think it was a lot harder than I expected it to be,'' Cruthers said. "I have a great wife. She knows how bad I want to win, and she pushed me more (for the trade) than I did.
"Once you get that OK, you get going.''
Murray said Cruthers has furnished the team another veteran presence -- this is Cruthers' fourth full pro season -- and vocal leader, as well as a guy with an appetite for a title and clutch scoring skills.
"We knew that he wanted to win somewhere, and he's hungry for that, and he's not going to let that opportunity pass by,'' Murray said. "Not knowing the guy before, just knowing his reputation, he's living up to it.''
Cruthers said the playoffs are his passion.
"Every game you have to play like it's your last -- you think, 'These guys want to end my season,' " Cruthers said. "For me, it's always been a motivator. I like big games.''
Thursday's game was scoreless through more than a period, and both teams squandered glorious chances in the opening 20 minutes, when the Aces outshot the Wranglers 17-6.
Alaska's Zach Harrison, stationed on the left edge of the crease, had nothing but open net -- all 24 square feet of twine -- at his disposal when defenseman Chad Anderson made a cross-ice pass from the bottom of the left circle. Fallon had come out of his net anticipating a shot from Anderson. Harrison inexplicably not only missed the net when he tried to sweep home a shot off the pass -- the puck looked like it slid off his blade -- but relayed the puck diagonally through the crease.
About four minutes later, Las Vegas sniper Eric Lampe cut in behind the Aces defense on right wing and accelerated toward a clear breakaway, but the puck jumped off his stick and slid harmlessly below the goal line.
Cruthers opened the scoring on a power play midway through the game. After Anderson carried the puck into Las Vegas' zone along the left boards, he left a drop pass for Cruthers. Cruthers, with room to roam, picked up the puck, skated to the top of the left circle and unloaded a bomb through traffic, off the right post and in.
The Aces finished the postseason struggling mightily on the power play and went 0 for 5 in the first two games of their five-game series win over Stockton in the conference semifinals. Since then, though, they have scored one power-play goal in four straight games.
Las Vegas countered late in the period. With the puck bouncing above Coleman's crease, rookie Scott Campbell swooped in and punched home a goal for his team-leading fifth strike of the playoffs and a 1-1 tie.
Las Vegas leveled the shot disparity in the last two periods to cut the Aces' margin for the game to 32-26.
The Wranglers were understandably chapped no penalty was called when Lampe was taken down late in the third period.
For the Aces, who finished just one game above .500 on the road in the regular season, the victory improved their road playoff record this spring to 4-0.
"Overall, the guys really answered the bell,'' Murray said. "We played a real strong road game, and everyone was up to the task."
Still, Murray said, getting the Game 1 victory was no reason to be satisfied with a split of the first two games.
"We need to put some pressure on ourselves to do everything we can (Friday), not to just let it slip by the wayside,'' he said.
Shuffling the deck
Coleman improved to 5-1 in the playoffs with a 1.30 goals-against average and .948 save percentage. The Aces have allowed just eight goals in six playoff games. And Coleman has permitted just four goals in the last four games.
Fallon is 2-1, with a 1.26 and .957, and combined with Mitch O'Keefe, has backstopped a team that has surrendered just 15 goals in nine playoff games.
Aces winger Dan Kissel, playing on a line with center Chris Langkow and winger Jordan Kremyr, unloaded a game-high eight shots on goal.
Winger Scott Howes, the reigning Kelly Cup Most Valuable Player, slotted into his old spot at left wing on a line with center Brian Swanson and right winger Wes Goldie. Playing his first game for the Aces since Nov. 18, Howes had one shot on goal.
Goldie didn't score a point for the first time this postseason.
Since the Aces' power play went 0 of 27 bridging the end of the regular season and the first two-plus games of the playoffs, it has converted on 4 of 19 chances (21.1 percent).
The Wranglers' top line of Lampe, Adam Miller and former Ace Judd Blackwater in the first two playoff rounds combined for an average of more than 15 shots on goal per game. Thursday, they accounted for five shots, three by Lampe and two by Blackwater. Former UAA winger Josh Lunden led Las Vegas with four shots.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces 0 1 1-- 2
Las Vegas 0 1 0 -- 1
First Period -- None. Penalties -- Lunden, Las Vegas (roughing), 18:36; Cruthers, Aces (roughing), 18:36; Mazzolini, Aces (roughing), 20:00.
Second Period -- 1, Aces, Cruthers 3 (Anderson, Lafranchise), 9:07 (pp); 2, Las Vegas, Campbell 5 (A. Miller, Weston), 17:29. Penalties -- Weston, Las Vegas (charging), 2:48; A. Goldie, Las Vegas (tripping), 8:44; Lafranchise, Aces (tripping), 12:49; Blackwater, Las Vegas (cross-checking), 12:58; A. Miller, Las Vegas (hooking), 15:12.
Third Period -- 3, Aces, Cruthers 4 (Marsh, Nunn), 15:54. Penalties -- Cruthers, Aces (boarding), 6:43; Las Vegas bench, game misconduct (abuse of officials), 20:00; Lampe, Las Vegas (misconduct), 20:00.
Shots on goal -- Aces 17-10-5--32. Las Vegas 6-14-6--26.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 1 of 4. Las Vegas 0 of 3.
Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 5-1 (26 shots-25 saves). Las Vegas, Fallon, 2-1 (32-30).
A -- 2,664 (7,773). T -- 2:22.
Referee -- Frederic Leblanc. Linesmen -- Todd Owen, Wally Lacroix.