The line of Nick Mazzolini centering Joey Crabb and Garry Nunn has proved the Alaska Aces' most consistently lethal -- and healthy -- combination this hockey season.
And Monday night, when the Colorado Eagles must have felt as if Sullivan Arena is becoming their personal graveyard, those three Aces shoveled ample dirt on the visitors.
Mazzolini bagged his ECHL-leading 20th goal, and Crabb and Nunn each scored a goal to spearhead the Aces to a 4-2 New Year's Eve victory that marked the season-high eighth straight win for the top team on the circuit.
The Aces have won home games on New Year's Eve in five straight years.
In a season in which the Aces (26-8-0) have endured what would normally seem a disheartening number of injuries -- 16 players have missed time with ailments -- Mazzolini and Nunn have appeared in every game. Crabb missed only the second game of the season, but really by choice -- the Aces had more healthy veterans than the four ECHL rules permit a team to play in any game, so Crabb volunteered to take the night off.
In any event, since Aces bench boss Rob Murray put the Mazzolini line together in November, it has been dangerous nearly every game.
So it is that the line features the club's top three scorers. Crabb, the erstwhile NHL winger, owns 15-21--36 totals in 33 games. Mazzolini checks in at 20-15--35 in 34 games. And Nunn, well on pace for career highs in all three scoring categories, owns 11-20--31 totals in 34 games.
"It's funny, because all three of us are completely different players,'' Nunn said. "I like to think I bring speed. Joe is just so big and strong, and protects the puck -- try to get it away from him. And Mazz is Mazz -- not always the prettiest, but so smart, so intelligent, and so able to make plays.''
Nunn is small by pro hockey standards -- 5-foot-9, 185 pounds -- but is unquestionably the speediest Ace. Crabb is fast and agile, and though just 6-1, 190, remarkably adept at holding off opponents. The only real rap on Mazzolini, a 6-2, 200-pounder, is his average skating, but he's an elite playmaker at the ECHL level who can't explain exactly why he has suddenly turned sniper. He had 27 goals in 63 games as a rookie for the Aces in 2009-10, when he was the club's leading scorer, and 21 goals in 69 games last season.
"I think I still look to pass first, like I always do,'' Mazzolini said. "I don't know. Good sticks, playing with good players, and the puck has eyes right now.''
Crabb and Mazzolini's ability to protect the puck in the offensive zone and create plays often leads to defensive breakdowns by opponents, and the Mazzolini line feasts on those.
"They click together, obviously,'' Murray said. "You know Mazz is going to be good -- last year, any time I needed to kick-start a guy, I put him with Mazz. Nunn is flying out there, and Joey can complement anyone.''
Monday, when Gerald Coleman backstopped the Aces with 23 saves for his sixth straight win, the Mazzolini line got the scoring started on a 3-on-1. Nunn carried the puck into the Colorado zone, with Crabb driving to the net and Mazzolini busting down the left wing. As Crabb occupied the only Eagles blueliner back to defend the play and also screened goaltender Kyle Jones, Nunn rifled a high shot over Jones' blocker.
Alexandre Imbeault's power-play goal later in the period, off a splendid feed from Alain Goulet, raised the lead to 2-0.
Then, Crabb and Mazzolini scored 24 seconds apart about seven minutes into the second period to swell the advantage to 4-0 and chase Jones in favor of Adam Brown.
Crabb jumped onto the ice on a line change, took a pass from Zach Harrison, and blew a slapper from the right dot off the junction of the left post and crossbar, and in. Next, he dished to Mazzolini for the latter's 20th goal, which made him the only player in the league to hit the 20-goal mark before the calendar year turned.
"I think it's a pretty good milestone to hit,'' Mazzolini said.
The Aces surrendered a power-play goal to Devin Di-Diomete in the second period, snapping Alaska's string of scoreless defense, dating back to Friday's 4-1 win, at 101:26. Colorado's Trent Daavettila scored on a two-man advantage in the third period, but when the Aces killed a subsequent Eagles power play, victory, and a sweep of the three-game series, was in hand. The Aces won 5-0 on Saturday.
The Aces are 11-0-0 against Colorado at Sullivan the last two seasons.
And because they never trailed Monday, they have not trailed in 479:16, less than a minute shy of the equivalent of eight consecutive regulation games.
All three skaters on the Mazzolini line have delivered nine points during the Aces' eight-game winning streak.
"Time is part of it,'' Crabb said. "Any time you play with a line a long time, you get to know their tendencies.''
Shuffling the deck
The Aces are 6-3-0 in New Year's Eve games in the ECHL -- all nine have been home matches. The only year the Aces did not host an ECHL home game on Dec. 31 was in 2006.
The eight straight wins is the sixth-longest winning streak by the Aces in their 10 ECHL seasons. The standard is the 11-game winning streak generated by the 2005-06 Kelly Cup-winning club.
Alaska has produced nine-game winning streaks in each of the two previous seasons, another one in 2005-06, and one in 2007-08.
Imbeault's goal extended his point streak to a season-best six games.
Nunn's goal stretched his point streak to four games. Ditto for Bobby Hughes, who assisted on Imbeault's goal.
Harrison's helper on Crabb's goal gives him a four-game point streak.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Colorado 0 1 1 -- 2
Aces 2 2 0 -- 4
First Period -- 1, Aces, Nunn 11, 8:15; 2, Aces, Imbeault 8 (Goulet, Hughes), 15:52 (pp). Penalties -- Clackson, Aces (boarding), 5:24; DiDiomete, Colorado (elbowing), 9:07; DiDiomete, Colorado (tripping), 14:03.
Second Period -- 3, Aces, Crabb 15 (Harrison), 7:00; 4, Aces, Mazzolini 20 (Crabb, Wrenn), 7:24; 5, Colorado, DiDiomete 1 (Haddon, Kaunisto), 9:40 (pp). Penalties -- Dubinsky, Aces (slashing), 8:20.
Third Period -- 6, Colorado, Daavettila 13 (Schneekloth, Ulanski), 15:22 (pp). Penalties -- Ulanksi, Colorado (slashing), :34; Smith, Aces (slashing), 14:08; Gorham, Aces (hooking), 15:07; Moore, Colorado (slashing), 17:55.
Shots on goal -- Colorado 3-10-12--25. Aces 13-9-8--30.
Power-play Opportunities -- Colorado 2 of 4. Aces 1 of 4.
Goalies -- Colorado, Jones, 9-9-2 (16 shots-12 saves); Brown, enter 7:24 2nd period (14-14). Aces, Coleman, 11-2-0 (25-23).
A -- 5,206 (6,399). T -- 2:24.
Referee -- J.M. McNulty. Linesmen -- Scott Sivulich, Travis Jackson.