For Alaska Aces fans, a disturbing trend has developed in the ECHL's Western Conference finals. In each of the Aces' three losses to Las Vegas, early goals from the Wranglers have put the Aces in a hole too tough to escape.
"For whatever reason, our starts haven't been that great," Aces captain Brian Swanson said. "When you play a team like Las Vegas with a really great defense, the early goals put you behind the eight ball. You just have to bounce back and keep playing."
When Las Vegas' Judd Blackwater scored 1 minutes, 49 seconds into Tuesday's 3-2 victory, it was the second time in the series the Wranglers led before two minutes had expired. In a 3-0 win in Game 2, the Wranglers were on the board just 1:28 in and went up 2-0 at the 4:06 mark. Though they waited until five minutes expired in Game 3 before scoring, the Wranglers never trailed in a 3-2 overtime win at Sullivan Arena on Sunday.
Momentum continued to roll the Wranglers way Tuesday, as Blackwater's early goal was followed by a breakaway score from center Eric Lampe at the 11:25 mark of the first period, putting the Aces down 2-0. Early leads are nice for obvious reasons, but they can also provide a mental edge.
"It gives a little confidence, which is always helpful because we are hockey players, and we are all mental midgets," Wranglers coach Ryan Mougenel said. "Our first goal was a gratuitous bounce, and we capitalized."
The Aces know firsthand how advantageous a lead can be. They were 32-0-5 when leading after second intermission this season and they were 4-12-2 when circumstances were reversed. Last season, on the way to winning the Kelly Cup, the Aces were 49-0 in the regular season and playoffs combined when leading after second intermission. Swanson, who was part of the Aces' championship run last season, said the Aces seemed ready to go before Tuesday's game.
"It really seemed like the focus was there," he said. "Everybody seemed to be feeling good in the locker room."
The positive vibe didn't dissipate when the Aces fell behind by two goals, Swanson said, because everyone knew there was plenty of time to get back in the game. When Peter MacArthur put the Wranglers up 3-0 with a goal early in the second period, things looked bleak for the Aces.
"Having a three-goal lead is kind of dangerous, because you can kind of let up a little," Mougenel said. "I thought we were kind of waiting for Alaska to do something, and they did."
Just before the second period ended, Dan Kissel scored on a breakaway to pull the Aces back to within two goals. The goal required an impressive display of athleticism as he split two defenders and struck on an awkward-looking shot. The crowd roared with approval, becoming as lively as it had been all night.
Taking Alaska fans out of the game isn't easy to do, Mougenel said, calling the Sullivan crowd one of he best the Wranglers have played in front of all season.
"There are times our home ice feels like we are at a practice," he said. "These fans, they're amazing, and it makes for great atmosphere."
Still, Swanson said there are times the Aces can sense the crowd is a little down and maybe having a hard time getting fired up.
"I'm sure they are frustrated," he said. "We are too."