Anchorage — Opening night at home is usually a banner evening for the Alaska Aces, and it will be again Friday at Sullivan Arena.
Before the Aces open a two-game series with the Utah Grizzlies, they'll unveil three new additions to banners that adorn the east wall of their home rink.
The additions represent three titles the Aces secured last season in the ECHL: The Brabham Cup as regular-season league champions, the regular-season Western Conference title and the regular-season Mountain Division crown.
The Aces head into their first home series, after splitting a season-opening road series at Colorado last weekend, with coach Rob Murray doing some lineup juggling because of a surplus of veterans. Also, a new defenseman has replaced a departed blueliner -- Chris Haltigin in, Danny Markowitz out -- and former Aces bench boss Davis Payne will drop the ceremonial first puck in Saturday night's series finale.
With NHL skaters Brandon Dubinsky, Nate Thompson and Joey Crabb playing for the club during the lockout and considered veterans in the ECHL, and defensemen Steve Ward and Sean Curry, as well as winger Matt Robinson counting as veterans, Murray has to puzzle out his lineup each game. ECHL clubs are permitted four veterans in the lineup, which means Murray must sit two veterans each night.
Last week, Curry's absence with a lower-body injury made the equation easier -- Murray only had to sit one veteran a night. Crabb played the first night while Robinson sat out, then Robinson played while Crabb sat the second night.
But with Curry possibly ready to go this weekend, two vets may have to sit at some point in the series against Utah. As "problems'' go, this isn't exactly crippling -- it's like choosing between types of really tasty ice cream.
Murray said opening with a pair of two-game series makes it tougher than it will be next week, when the Aces entertain the expansion San Francisco Bulls for three games in three nights.
"A 3-in-3 is a little easier to rotate guys in and out,'' Murray said. "Right now, there's nothing written in stone. We're still trying to figure it out.''
Murray said his decision was made easier last Saturday in Colorado when Crabb volunteered to take the night off.
The Aces' roster underwent a couple changes Thursday, when the club released second-year defenseman Danny Markowitz and added rookie defenseman Chris Haltigin.
Haltigin, 24, who was in training camp briefly this fall with ECHL Fort Wayne and then with ECHL Orlando, is coming off a strong college career at RIT. In 39 games last season, he posted 5-16--21 totals. He earned 24-50--74 totals in 147 career games.
Payne is responsible for many of the banners that hang at Sullivan -- he coached the Aces from 2003 to 2007, guided them to the 2006 Kelly Cup and racked a 185-75-28 (.691 winning percentage) regular-season record.
Payne left Alaska to become an assistant coach with the Peoria Rivermen of the American Hockey League. The former NHLer became head coach at Peoria, then became bench boss of the NHL's St. Louis Blues for parts of three seasons before he was fired early last season. Payne is currently as assistant coach with the NHL's Los Angeles Kings.
He's not the only one making a homecoming of sorts this weekend. Utah's roster features several Alaska connections.
Grizzlies winger Kory Falite and defenseman Mark Isherwood as rookies both helped the Aces to the 2011 Kelly Cup. Utah also includes former Aces defenseman Nick Tuzzolino and former UAA forward August Aiken.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.