Following Tuesday night's 3-2 loss to the lethal Las Vegas Wranglers, the Alaska Aces find themselves teetering on the brink of the postseason abyss, just one stumble from plunging headlong into the end of their season.
In 103 previous best-of-7 series in the ECHL's 24-season history, only four teams have reached the precipice the Aces now encounter -- trailing 3-1 in the series -- and managed to overcome the long odds, survive and boast of making hockey history.
After winning their third straight game in the Western Conference finals, and second straight at Sullivan Arena, the Wranglers own a seeming stranglehold on the defending Kelly Cup champions and can choke them out Wednesday night in Game 5 at Sullivan.
An Aces win Wednesday would force Game 6 on Friday at Sullivan. So, the Aces must capture consecutive victories to push the series to a Game 7 in Las Vegas.
All of which makes this the traditional time for both the club with the upper hand and the team staring at elimination to point out that three wins do not a series victory make.
"It's not over, for sure,'' said Wranglers forward Judd Blackwater, the former Ace.
"We've got two games left here, and there's no reason we can't win them and push it to a Game 7, where you never know,'' said Aces bench boss Rob Murray.
For the defending champs, the situation is both dire and unusual, the latter because the Aces fashioned the league's best home-ice record in the regular season, yet have gone just 1-3 at Sullivan in two rounds of these playoffs.
What the Aces require to extend the series, for starters, is a better start.
Blackwater opened the scoring just 1 minute, 49 seconds into Tuesday's match, continuing a trend that has fortified the Wranglers. In three of the series' four games, they have opened the scoring in the first five minutes. Also, the team that has scored first has won every game in the series.
Blackwater, perched at the edge of the crease, backhanded a rebound past Gerald Coleman (21 saves) after the goaltender stopped Michael Busto's drive from the right point.
"Busto's got great vision and he found a lane,'' Blackwater said. "It came right to me. I just got a stick on it. Lucky goal.''
Alaska's problems were compounded 10 minutes later when it sustained pressure deep in Las Vegas' end, yet ended up trailing 2-0. When the Wranglers finally collected the puck after the Aces' surge, Adam Miller's long, hard and accurate pass from the left-wing boards deep in his zone hit sniper Eric Lampe in full flight on right wing.
Lampe, the league's regular-season goal-scoring champ and the author of Sunday's night's game-winning overtime strike in Game 3, blew in behind Aces defenseman Bryan Miller and beat Coleman to the stick side.
That goal served both to kill the announced crowd of 4,170 and put the Aces in a pinch. They entered Game 4 having scoring just four goals in the series and again were facing Wranglers goaltender Joe Fallon, who made 24 saves Tuesday and has stopped 106 of 112 shots (.946 save percentage) in the series.
"One goal is one thing, but giving up two is not only facing an uphill battle, but it's demoralizing at home, where we're not used to that situation,'' Murray said.
Aces forward Nick Mazzolini said the team addressed its poor starts immediately after the game.
"We've got to find a way to get up for that drop of the puck,'' Mazzolini said. "(Murray) said we had one of our best pregame skates of the season today, then that happens.
"We've got to find a way to jump-start ourselves, get that first goal and get momentum going our way.''
The Wranglers, Blackwater said, have been preaching strong starts, especially in the two games on Sullivan's Olympic-sized ice sheet, in front of hostile crowds.
"It's really key, because they're used to the big ice and have great atmosphere here,'' Blackwater said. "So, if we come out sluggish, they'll take it to us. We've really harped on coming out with a bang.''
By the second period, the Aces faced more problems than just a 2-0 deficit.
Winger Scott Howes, who initially was going to be a scratch with illness but was a late addition to the lineup, did not come out for the second period, though he did play in the third. And center Ryan Cruthers, who scored both goals in Alaska's 2-1 win in Game 1, glided gingerly off the ice and to the training room in the opening minute of the second period. He returned midway through the period and played the rest of the game, but did not appear fully healthy.
Las Vegas pushed its advantage to 3-0 seven minutes into the second period, when Peter MacArthur scored on a backhanded rebound of a backhander by Josh Lunden, the former UAA winger.
The Aces gained hope from Dan Kissel's spectacular goal in the final minute of the second period. Kissel split defensemen Barry Goers and Jamie Fritsch - two guys with a combined 41 American Hockey League games played this season - and shoveled a forehand past Fallon's stick.
Alaska pushed hard in the third period, but only cut the lead to 3-2 on defenseman Chad Anderson's extra-attacker goal with five seconds left.
"We just couldn't seem to crack them,'' Murray said.
And now the Aces face elimination against a dynamic, fast and skilled team firing on all cylinders the last three games.
"We've played awesome,'' Blackwater said. "We've got our goalie playing outstanding, and we've got really good depth from our three lines and our D-men.''
For the Aces, the only way out of their predicament is one stride at a time and, as Bryan Miller said, treating every play as if it will decide the season.
"They didn't win the series tonight,'' Miller said. "You've got to win four games. Show up to work (Wednesday) - that's really it.''
Shuffling the deck
Aces rookie winger Chris Bruton returned to the lineup after missing four games with a lower-body injury and assisted on Anderson's late goal.
Wes Goldie assisted on both Aces goals.
With rookie defenseman Brock Shelgren back at Michigan State to complete testing for his degree, Murray dressed a lineup of 11 forwards and five defensemen.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Las Vegas 2 1 0 -- 3
Aces 0 1 1 --2
First Period -- 1, Las Vegas, Blackwater 3 (Busto, Lampe), 1:49; 2, Las Vegas, Lampe 5 (A. Miller, Fritsch), 11:25. Penalties -- Swanson, Aces (slashing), 16:50; Bruton, Aces (roughing), 17:46; MacArthur, Las Vegas (unsportsmanlike conduct), 17:46.
Second Period -- 3, Las Vegas, MacArthur 3 (Lunden, Madill), 7:01; 4, Aces, Kissel 4 (Goldie, Swanson), 19:05. Penalties -- Lunden, Las Vegas (slashing), 10:27; May, Las Vegas (high-sticking), 14:48.
Third Period -- 5, Aces, Anderson 1 (Goldie, Bruton), 19:55 (ea). Penalties -- Cruthers, Aces (tripping), 5:04; Aces bench minor, served by Cruthers (too many men), 16:03.
Shots on goal -- Las Vegas 9-7-8--24. Aces 9-8-9--26.
Power-play Opportunities - Las Vegas 0 of 3. Aces 0 of 2.
Goalies -- Las Vegas, Fallon, 5-1 (26 shots-24 saves). Aces, Coleman, 5-4 (24-21).
A -- 4,170 (6,399). T -- 2:15.
Referee -- T.J. Luxmore. Linesmen -- Scott Sivulich, Steve Glines.