Massive minutes: Alaska Aces forwards Crabb and Thompson shoulder big work load

dwoody@adn.comNovember 20, 2012 

— Reviewing Alaska Aces game video earlier this hockey season, Joey Crabb was not overly impressed by the speed of the guy wearing No. 46, which was particularly distressing because he's that guy.

"It's funny, we were watching video and I was thinking, 'I'm going so slow out there.' I told myself I have to go harder. Then I realized why I wasn't going so hard -- because I'm getting so many minutes.''

For NHLers Crabb and Nate Thompson, who are playing two leagues down in the ECHL for their hometown team during the lockout, one critical adjustment they have been forced to make is how to allocate their energy over the course of a game.

In the NHL, Thompson last season averaged 14 minutes, 49 seconds of ice time, and 20.5 shifts, per game for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Crabb last season averaged 13:26 of ice time and 18.5 shifts per game for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The ECHL does not track ice time or shifts, but unofficial scrutiny last week pegged Thompson and Crabb playing more than 20 minutes per game, and logging at least 25 shifts per game. They play together on a line at even strength, play together on a power-play unit and are a forward duo on the penalty kill.

And because ECHL teams only dress 10 forwards -- three full lines plus an extra -- compared to the 12 forwards NHL teams dress -- four full lines -- Aces coach Rob Murray leans hard on Crabb and Thompson.

The NHLers have produced. Crabb is tied with Nick Mazzolini, another power-play and penalty-killing guy, for the team lead in points -- he owns 6-8--14 totals in 14 games. Thompson is tied for third on the club with 4-8--12 totals in 15 games.

Both Crabb and Thompson say that work load has become more manageable now that they have played their way into game fitness -- the Aces, who open a road trip Wednesday night in Idaho, have played 15 games -- but it proved tough early in the schedule.

"There were a couple times I'd be sitting there (on the bench), just got off a shift, and we'd be up already,'' Crabb recalled. "I'd think, 'We're up already?' ''

Thompson noticed the same thing.

"You'd sit down and it seemed like it was time to get up again,'' he said.

Not that you'll hear hockey players complain about ice time -- well, at least not about too much ice time.

"It's been great,'' Thompson said. "To be allowed the opportunity to play this many minutes and in so many situations, that's what I wanted when I decided to play in this league.

"I still want to get better and improve, and all this ice time is only going to help.''

Still, both players need to ration their energy more than they do in the NHL.

"I'm an energy guy in the NHL, running around and hitting guys,'' Crabb said. "If I took every shift like I did in the NHL, I'd have nothing in me. But I still have to go hard.

"It's great. I do think I'm getting in great shape.''

Crabb in the NHL is a third- and fourth-line winger who kills penalties, but doesn't play on the power play. Thompson is a third- and fourth-line center who kills penalties but doesn't get power-play time. He said his power-play time with the Aces is really the first he's logged since he played his last season of major-junior for the Seattle Thunderbirds in 2004-05.

"I never get to play it in the NHL, so it has been a blast,'' Thompson said.

Thompson said that as veterans -- he is 28, Crabb is 29 -- he and his linemate know their bodies. They know to get plenty of rest, eat well and take the odd day off.

Crabb said now that he's got some games under his belt, he feels fitter and is handling heavy minutes better.

"At the start of the season, I'd hope the guy (I was replacing on a shift change) would take a long shift,'' Crabb said. "Now, you can't wait to get out there. That's when you know you're in shape.''

In the NHL, on a night when they don't get significant minutes, players like Crabb and Thompson might mix in a postgame stationary bike ride to maintain their fitness.

But supplemental exercise seems like the last thing they need these days.

"As of now, we haven't had to do exercise off the ice because we're getting plenty of it on the ice,'' Thompson said.

Shuffling the deck

One of the Aces' two other NHLers, Brandon Dubinsky of Anchorage (8-4--12 in 12 games), also logged heavy ice time -- regular shift, power play, penalty kill -- before he went out with a broken hand.

NHL center Scott Gomez of Anchorage, who has played three games for the Aces (2-3--5 totals), has received less ice time -- he has quarterbacked a power-play unit but has not killed penalties.

Thompson's three short-handed assists and four short-handed points both the league, and Crabb and Idaho's Kael Mouillierat are tied for second with three short-handed points each. Mazzolini's four game-winning goals top the circuit, as do Mouillierat's two winning shootout goals.

Idaho is third in the league in goals per game at 4.13. Justin Dowling (6-15--21 in 15 games) and Mouillierat (10-10--20 in 13 games) pace the offense.

Wednesday's game will feature two of the league's highest-scoring rookie defensemen. Idaho's Jeremie Blain (4-10--14 in 15 games) checks in at No. 2 and Alaska's William Wrenn (4-6--10 in 15 games) is No. 3.

Gerald Coleman, the Aces' No. 1 goaltender the last two seasons, was activated earlier this week -- he's underwent hip surgery in the offseason -- and accompanied the team on its six-game, five-city road trip. Murray said he expects Coleman to play on the trip, but Mark Guggenberger tonight is expected to make his 13th straight start.

One piece of advice Coleman can offer Guggenberger is to beware the springy end boards at CenturyLink Arena in Boise. Traditionally, the Steelheads sometimes purposely miss the net when shooting to create their own rebound. To wit: A hard, low shot that just misses the net wide right, often ricochets hard off the end boards and back out to the left of the net, and vice versa.

For the second year in a row, the Aces will spend Thanksgiving -- well, American Thanksgiving -- in Utah.

Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

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