As uninspired as the Alaska Aces played through the first two periods of Monday night’s 2-1 loss to the Utah Grizzlies, the visitors nonetheless deserved to get their tires pumped.
After all, the Grizzlies, long the Aces’ whipping boys, and especially so in Anchorage, forged a split of the four-game ECHL series at Sullivan Arena and wrapped their six games in Anchorage this season with a split (3-3-0).
Put another way, Utah is the only team to win in Anchorage this season — neither San Francisco or Colorado could do so in three tries each.
And against an Alaska franchise that season-in and season-out either delivers the circuit’s best home-ice record or one of the best, that’s no small feat.
Utah winger Kory Falite knows. He was a rookie for the Aces in 2010-11, when they won the Kelly Cup.
“No matter what kind of team they have, it’s hard,’’ Falite said. “The travel, the bigger ice surface, the crowd that’s louder than most — all of it makes it tough.’’
The Grizzlies (10-10-2) used 28 saves from rookie goaltender Grant Rollheiser, and goals from Josh Burrows and Brad Mills, to flourish before heading to the airport for a red-eye home. The clubs will get reacquainted soon enough — the Aces (18-7-0) are scheduled for a 7 a.m. flight out of town Tuesday morning and play Wednesday in Idaho before a two-game series at Utah on Friday and Saturday.
Alaska managed just 14 shots in the first two periods and barely threatened Rollheiser.
“It was kind of reminiscent of that (2-1 loss on Nov. 21) Idaho game where we sat back for two periods and didn’t push the pace until the third period,’’ said Aces center Nate Thompson.
One of the few signs of life from the Aces in the first two periods came from winger Joey Crabb, who bloodied Burrows in a fight after Burrows got an elbow up in his grill in front of the Aces bench. Other than that, and a Matt Robinson blast off the post, Alaska played a subdued 40 minutes.
The Grizzlies had a hand in that. Rollheiser didn’t cough up rebounds, and the Aces’ attack was often a case of one and done. Rollheiser either smothered the puck for a whistle or the Grizzlies counter-attacked. In any case, rebounds were rare and, thus, so were second chances for the Aces, who were coming off an 8-4 victory over the Grizzlies on Saturday night.
“We just smartened up defensively,’’ Falite said. “Guys had their heads on a swivel. It’s Hockey 101, really.’’
Meanwhile, the Aces lacked crispness and a sense of urgency.
“We definitely could have worked harder,’’ Crabb said. “It wasn’t the worst effort, but we’ve got to be cleaner with our passes.’’
Mark Guggenberger (26 saves) kept the Aces in the game with strong work.
Burrows, a defenseman, finally busted a scoreless tie six minutes into the second period when his shot from the left point beat a screened Guggenberger high to the stick side. Burrows scored two goals in the series and has generated 2-2—4 totals in eight games against the Aces this season.
Mills pushed the cushion to 2-0 when he took advantage of a fortuitous bounce. Utah defenseman Nick Tuzzolino, the former Ace, fired a power-play shot from the right point that hit traffic three minutes into the third period and ricocheted right to Mills’ tape between the faceoff circles. He quickly unleashed a dart over Guggenberger’s glove for his 12th goal in 17 games.
The Aces finally broke through with less than six minutes to go when Crabb back-handed home a rebound of a Thompson shot.
Alaska pulled Guggenberger for an extra attacker with 77 seconds left but never mounted a serious bid for the equalizer.
Shuffling the deck
Aces center Scott Gomez, who left Saturday night’s game after two periods with a lower-body injury, sat out Monday.
Also still out with injuries were defensemen Steve Ward, goaltender James Reid, and forwards Tim Hall, Bobby Hughes, Brandon Dubinsky, Jordan Kremyr and Tommy Mele.
Through 25 games, 15 Aces have missed a combined 164 games with injuries.
One of Rollheiser’s best stops came in the third period when Merit Waldrop, the former UAA skater helping out the injury-ravaged Aces in the series, got off a backhander during a delayed penalty against Utah.
Waldrop appeared to have Rollheiser beaten after faking a forehand, but Rollheiser got the toe of his left skate on Waldrop’s shot.
Waldrop’s son, Merit, scored multiple goals – there was some confusion over whether he scored three or four – during an intermission mini-game by mite players.
“My kid gets four at intermission, and I can’t even get one,’’ said Merit, the father, with a laugh.
The announced crowd of 3,566 was a strong showing for a rare Monday night game, especially one matching the same two clubs for the fourth time in six nights.
The Aces next are home for a pair of three-game series against the Stockton Thunder (Dec. 19, 20-21) and the Colorado Eagles (Dec. 28-29, 31).
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Utah 0 1 1 — 2
Aces 0 0 1—1
First Period — None. Penalties — Tuzzolini, Utah (slashing), 1:39; Robinson, Aces (roughing), 11:53; Curry, Aces (slashing), 15:01; Armstrong, Utah (roughing), 15:01; Syvret, Aces (tripping), 16:05.
Second Period — 1, Utah, Burrows 3 (Tuzzolino, Patterson), 6:09. Penalties — Nunn, Aces (slashing), 7:02; Armstrong, Utah (slashing), 7:02; Smith, Aces (slashing), 13:45; Crabb, Aces, minor-major, served by Nunn (roughing, fighting), 16:54; Burrows, Utah, major (fighting), 16:54; Wahl, Utah (interference), 17:46.
Third Period — 2, Utah, Mills 12 (Tuzzolino, Wahl), 2:57 (pp); 3, Aces, Crabb 12 (Thompson, Imbeault), 14:11. Penalties — Molle, Aces (boarding), 2:00; Wahl, Utah (elbowing), 5:36; Schultz, Utah (charging).
Shots on goal — Utah 8-14-6—28. Aces 7-7-15—29.
Power-play Opportunities — Utah 1 of 5. Aces 0 of 4.
Goalies — Utah, Rollheiser, 5-3-1 (29 shots-28 saves). Aces, Guggenberger, 12-5-0 (28-26).
A — 3,566 (6,399). T — 2:28.
Referee — Marc-Andre Lavoie. Linesmen – Travis Jackson, Chad Colliander.