In the aftermath of a frenetic 1-0 victory over the Utah Grizzlies, several Alaska Aces referred to their newest teammate, who authored the game’s only goal in his pro debut, as either “the new guy’’ or, “Haltsie.’’
They’ll know Chris Haltigin’s full name soon enough – he certainly made a name for himself Saturday night at Sullivan Arena.
On an evening when the Aces lost their second defenseman in two nights to injury – captain Steve Ward suffered a fractured right fibula and will undergo surgery Sunday — Haltigin’s third-period goal and Mark Guggenberger’s 23-save shutout in his home debut sparked the club.
Coming off Friday’s 5-2 loss to Utah in their home opener, the Aces’ victory Saturday kept them from losing both games of a two-game series in regulation for the first time in their ECHL history. They have played 38 two-game home series in their 10 seasons on the circuit, and the worst they’ve ever done is a loss and a shootout loss — that lost weekend came against the now-defunct Fresno Falcons on Jan. 14-15, 2005.
With Utah goalie Andrew Engelage (38 saves) playing magnificently for the second straight night, Haltigin finally cracked him five minutes into the third period.
The rookie from RIT beat Engelage with a shot high to the glove side after Nick Mazzolini stole the puck from former Aces defenseman Mark Isherwood just below the Grizzlies goal line. Mazzolini quickly centered the puck to Garry Nunn, who was cross-checked to the ice by Chris Donovan and drew a delayed penalty.
With referee Geoff Miller’s arm raised to signal the penalty, the puck slid into the high slot and Haltigin’s shot prompted the ref to point at the net to signal a goal.
“I managed to poke it free, and got good support,’’ Mazzolini said. “Nunner took a guy and (Tommy) Mele took a guy, and it ended up popping out to the new guy – um, ‘Haltsie.’ ”
And his first name?
“Not a clue,’’ Mazzolini laughed.
For Haltigin, who was in training camp with Fort Wayne and Orlando before arriving in Anchorage, Saturday night was almost surreal. Not only did he bag the game-winner in his pro debut, but he was on the ice in the final minute, when the Grizzlies pulled Engelage for an extra attacker.
“It was exciting,’’ Haltigin said. “I almost want to say overwhelming. I just wanted to make a good first impression, come out and do my job. The fact they trusted me enough to put me out in the last minute was special, and unexpected.’’
More ice time appears on the horizon because the Aces are now without Ward and Kane Lafranchise, who did not play Saturday after taking a hit to the head Friday that earned Utah’s Riley Armstrong a three-game suspension.
Many nights when the Aces are protecting a one-goal lead in the last minute, Ward and Lafranchise are the defensive pairing entrusted with preserving the lead.
Ward was injured early in the first period when he blocked a slap shot by Donovan. He hobbled to the bench, yet soon returned to the ice when the Aces went on a power play. But when he pushed off with his right skate to try to keep the puck in Utah’s zone, he crumpled to the ice. Soon he labored to the bench, and soon after that was accompanied off the ice by trainer Alan Diamond. Ward did not appear able to put any weight on his right leg.
Besides Ward and Lafranchise, the Aces already have two defensemen on the shelf in veteran Sean Curry and Todd Orlando.
“It kind of puts us in a bind, to be honest,’’ said Aces coach Rob Murray. “We’ve got to find one, maybe two, defensemen going into next weekend.’’
Alaska (2-2-0) entertains the expansion San Francisco Bulls in a three-game series that opens Friday night at Sullivan.
Murray and Louis Mass, who coaches the team’s blueliners, had never seen Haltigin play live, so they were learning his game as Saturday’s game progressed.
“We had no baseline on him, but he was solid,’’ Murray said. “Obviously, the goal was big. But we were probably 10 minutes into the game when Louis said, ‘I like him.’ ”
Guggenberger didn’t face much pressure in the first two periods — he faced 13 shots in the opening 40 minutes — but stopped 10 shots in the third period. That included a chaotic sequence in his crease, where bodies piled up and the puck pin-balled.
“I made a save and the rebound was sitting there and guys were jumping over me,’’ he said. “I saw it go to my right so I had to get over there and get a glove on it. Then more guys started piling in. Lot of hard work behind me to keep the puck out.’’
Murray used all three of his NHL players on a line — Nate Thompson centered Brandon Dubinsky and Joey Crabb. Dubinsky cranked off a game-high seven shots on goal, Thompson furnished four, including a breakaway Engelage rebuffed, and Crabb contributed two.
Still, Engelage was nearly unbeatable.
“He was positionally solid, and that’s why I think we hit him a lot in the chest,’’ Mazzolini said. “He was a difference-maker.’’
So too was Haltigin. His teammates will know his name soon enough, and he’s still getting a handle on things, as well.
“I’m still learning these guys’ names too,’’ Haltigin said.
Shuffling the deck
Veteran winger Matt Robinson was a scratch for the second straight game and third time in four games this season — he seems to be the odd-man out in the Aces’ situation, which sees them with six skaters classified as veterans under ECHL rules. Teams can only dress four veterans for each game.
Utah (3-1-0) fell from the ranks of the unbeaten. Only Elmira (4-0-0) is perfect after two weeks of games.
The Aces went scoreless on eight power-play chances, but killed all four Grizzlies power plays and have killed 22 of opponents’ 23 power-play chances this season.
Former Aces coach Davis Payne, who guided them to the 2006 Kelly Cup, dropped the ceremonial first puck. Payne is an assistant coach with the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, who he’s got some spare time during the lockout.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Utah 0 0 0 — 0
Aces 0 0 1 — 1
First Period — None. Penalties — Mills, Utah (slashing), :44; Burrows, Utah (boarding), 6:26; Thompson, Aces, double minor (hooking, roughing), 10:15; Syvret, Aces (elbowing), 14:44; Donovan, Utah (holding), 14:44; Howse, Utah (slashing), 18:43; Dubinsky, Aces (slashing), 20:00; Stoflet, Utah (slashing), 20:00.
Second Period — None. Penalties — Syvret, Aces (hooking), 7:27; Isherwood, Utah (hooking), 12:21; MacKenzie, Utah (boarding), 18:22.
Third Period — 1, Aces, Haltigin 1 (Mazzolini), 4:47. Penalties — Donovan, Utah (slashing), 6:24; Martin, Utah (boarding), 11:55; Mazzolini, Aces (high-sticking), 13:40; Utah bench minor, served by Cameron (too many men), 16:05.
Shots on goal — Utah 10-3-10--23. Aces 14-10-15—39.
Power-play Opportunities — Utah 0 of 4. Aces 0 of 8.
Goalies — Utah, Engelage, 3-1-0 (39 shots-38 saves). Aces, Guggenberger, 1-1-0 (23-23).
A — 5,007 (6,399). T — 2:19.
Referee — Geoff Miller. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.