When nothing much worked particularly sharply for the Alaska Aces through two periods Friday night, coach Rob Murray loaded up an all-NHLer top line by moving center Scott Gomez to left wing on a line with center Nate Thompson and right wing Joey Crabb.
That didn’t gain the Aces significantly more traction on a night when their goaltender, Gerald Coleman, struggled with his rebounds and the guy at the other end, Grant Rollheiser (25 saves), proved formidable.
The Utah Grizzlies, meanwhile, struck early, never trailed and never wavered from a strong, smart effort, all of which generated their 4-1 ECHL win at Sullivan Arena and snapped the Aces’ six-game winning streak.
Alaska (17-6-0) also had its eight-game, home-ice winning streak squashed — Utah (9-9-2) is the only visitor to win at Sullivan this season, bookending those eight Alaska wins with a victory in the Aces’ home opener and Friday’s win.
“Give that team 100 percent credit,’’ Gomez said of the Grizzlies. “They frustrated us. They came in here and took it to us.
“They played a solid game from the get-go. It’s not easy to come in here and win — history shows it.’’
The hockey game arguably turned early in the second period, when the Grizzlies led 2-0 courtesy of first-period goals from defenseman Josh Burrows, whose wrister on an odd-man rush ticked off Coleman’s left pad and in, and Ian Schultz, who scored a power-play rebound strike.
But the Aces closed the gap to 2-1 when Matt Robinson, playing in just his sixth game this season, scored his first goal with a wrister from the left wing that ricocheted off Rollheiser’s glove and in less than two minutes into the second period.
Any momentum the Aces generated was quickly extinguished when the Grizzlies — especially two former Aces — answered just 30 seconds later.
Aces defenseman Russ Sinkewich’s drop pass just inside the Utah line kick-started an odd-man rush for the Grizzlies, with former Aces winger Kory Falite leading the rush and former Aces defenseman Mark Isherwood finishing it. Those two, like Sinkewich, were part of the Aces’ 2011 Kelly Cup-winning club.
Falite, skating the left wing, centered the puck to Isherwood — “He was screaming his face off,’’ Falite said — and the defenseman scored from the high slot just after a collision between Utah’s net-driving Brad Mills and Coleman, who sprawled to the ice.
Coleman (19 saves), who lost for the first time in his six starts since coming back from offseason hip surgery, said he believed Mills was guilty of goaltender interference. Referee Marc-Andre Lavoie let the goal stand.
The Grizzlies, who lost 4-2 Wednesday in the opener of a rare four-game series that continues Saturday night and wraps Monday night, never lapsed after gaining that 2-0 lead inside the first nine minutes.
“It’s huge,’’ Falite said of starting well in a rink in which the Aces are always among the circuit’s top home teams. “The first 10 minutes, whether you score or not, it’s important to try to dictate the play.’’
Trailing 3-1 entering the third period, Murray juggled all three of his lines, loading up that top line.
“It was just more of a shot in the dark, thinking if we put Scott with Joey and Nate, with some urgency they might be able to get two goals,’’ Murray said.
The only goal of the third period came from Utah’s Chris Donovan, who scored on a Falite rebound. Donovan has scored three goals in 15 games this season and all of them have come at Sullivan.
Alaska remains the top team in the league — barely. The Aces own a .739 winning percentage, just ahead of Ontario’s .738.
Coleman said the end of both his club’s overall winning streak and its home-ice winning streak wasn’t a surprise.
“When you start winning so much, you get complacent,’’ he said. “You want to win every game, but you won’t. Now we have to start a new streak.’’
Shuffling the deck
The power-play goal the Aces surrendered was just the second the league’s best penalty-killing unit has allowed in the last nine games.
Alexandre Imbeault’s five-game point streak was snapped, as was Thompson’s four-game streak.
Battered by injuries, the Aces signed forward Merit Waldrop of Anchorage, the former UAA skater who also has played for the Aces each of the three previous seasons when they’ve been short forwards.
In the third period, Waldrop centered Zach Harrison and Garry Nunn, while Nick Mazzolini moved to center between Robinson and Imbeault.
Aces center Bobby Hughes, injured in Wednesday’s win, has been placed on reserve, as has veteran defenseman Sean Curry, who is out with an injury.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Utah 2 1 1 — 4
Aces 0 1 0 — 1
First Period — 1, Utah, Burrows 2 (Maxwell, Wahl), 3:24; 2, Utah, Schultz 1 (Armstrong, Wahl), 8:37 (pp). Penalties — Armstrong, Utah (goaltender interference), 5:21; Imbeault, Aces (hooking), 7:35; Syvret, Aces (roughing), 14:18.
Second Period — 3, Aces, Robinson 1 (Haltigin, Smith), 1:56; 4, Utah, Isherwood 2 (Falite, Vock), 2:26. Penalties — Wahl, Utah (hooking), 3:21; Imbeault, Aces (delay of game), 13:47; Tuzzolino, Utah (delay of game), 13:47.
Third Period — 5, Utah, Donovan 3 (Falite, Stoflet), 9:35. Penalties — None.
Shots on goal — Utah 10-6-7—23. Aces 8-12-6—26.
Power-play Opportunities — Utah 1 of 2. Aces 0 of 2.
Goalies — Utah, Rollheiser, 4-2-1 (26 shots-25 saves). Aces, Coleman, 5-1-0 (23-19).
A — 5,078 (6,399). T – 2:17.
Referee — Marc-Andre Lavoie. Linesmen — Scott Sivulich, Travis Jackson.