The diligent defense and great goaltending that have lifted the Alaska Aces to the top of the ECHL this season have been largely absent in the last two games.
Idaho’s 4-3 win over the Aces on Friday night, coupled with its 4-3 overtime win Wednesday, marks the first time in more than three months the Aces have surrendered as many as four goals in consecutive hockey games.
And while Alaska goaltender Mark Guggenberger (22 saves) didn’t struggle like Gerald Coleman (12 saves) did Wednesday, he wasn’t at his sharpest Friday.
Both guys were not served well by repeated defensive lapses in front of them, especially not against an opponent that possesses the most lethal offense on the 23-team circuit and exploits opportunities with precision.
“It was non-committal,’’ Aces coach Rob Murray said of his club’s lack of due diligence defensively.
Idaho is the one team in the Western Conference that has given the Aces fits. Alaska, which Friday lost its eight-game streak (7-0-1) of games unbeaten in regulation, is just 1-4-1 against the Steelheads.
The raucous Sullivan Arena crowds often help lift the Aces (46-13-7) and visitors to the building occasionally get steam-rolled. But the Steelheads (41-17-7), who have never trailed in the first two games of this three-game series that wraps Saturday night, didn’t seem the least unnerved by Friday’s standing-room-only, announced crowd of 6,599.
Steelheads defenseman John Ryder, who bagged the first goal of his pro career, said that equilibrium stems from coach Brad Ralph, who played one game in the NHL, and captain Ben Ondrus, who played 52 NHL games.
“Honestly, it’s our leadership that keeps us going,’’ Ryder said. “Brad keeps us focused and Ben always keeps us on the right path. It’s easy to be even-keeled when your coach is even-keeled and your captain is even-keeled.
“It’s kind of nice because everyone follows suit.’’
The Steelheads have flourished in part this week because they have started well. Friday, they owned a 2-1 lead through one period when Austin Smith and Tyler Gron book-ended goals around the first of two goals from Aces forward Alex Hudson.
In six games against Alaska this season, Idaho has scored 10 first-period goals. In 60 games against other opponents, the Aces have surrendered 34 first-period goals.
After Ryder furnished Idaho a 3-1 lead five minutes into the second period, the Aces raced back to forge a 3-3 tie on Hudson’s second goal — he has eight goals in the last eight games — and Tommy Hughes’ power-play goal. That took the teams into the third period deadlocked 3-3.
Idaho defenseman Jace Coyle, who arrived in Anchorage late Thursday night after NHL Dallas reassigned him to the Steelheads from Texas of the American Hockey League, furnished the game-winning goal less than five minutes into the third period.
He joined the attack and banged in Gron’s centering pass at the edge of Guggenberger’s crease. That was all Idaho goalie Josh Robinson (36 saves) needed to earn his 25th win.
For the Aces, winger Tim Hall was a revelation. He played for the first time in five months since suffering a concussion and generated two assists.
“I was kind of waiting for this game to deteriorate — with his conditioning and the adrenaline wearing off,’’ Murray said. “But it never happened. He was our best player.’’
The guy who has been Alaska’s best player all season, center Nick Mazzolini, snapped on referee Chris Pitoscia early in the game, and subsequently ended up missing nearly half the game.
When Mazzolini was issued a roughing penalty less than five minutes into the game, he barked at Pitoscia and received an additional minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Mazzolini kept it up and Pitoscia hit him with a pair of misconducts. By the time Mazzolini was released from the penalty box midway through the second period, he missed 25:24 of a 60-minute game.
“Unacceptable,’’ Murray said.
For the Aces, that also held true for their defensive lapses, which the Steelheads picked apart.
“I think their (defensemen) did a great job of capitalizing on their opportunities — they scored two goals — and that starts with our (team) defense, not blocking shots,’’ Hall said. “Team defense really hurt us.’’
Shuffling the deck
Alaska’s magic number for winning the Mountain Division remains five — any combination of Aces points earned and Idaho points lost equaling five would give Alaska the crown.
Ontario’s 5-4 shootout loss to Stockton lowered Alaska’s magic number for winning the Brabham Cup as overall regular-season champions to seven.
Mazzolini’s seven-game point streak came to an end.
Rylan Galiardi racked three assists for Idaho, and Jeremie Blain (two assists), Gron (one goal, one helper) and Coyle (one goal, one assist) each furnished multiple-point nights.
Former UAA goalie Jon Olthuis, who played for Idaho bench boss Ralph in the Southern Professional Hockey League, served as Idaho’s emergency back-up goalie.
Erstwhile Aces defenseman William Wrenn had an assist and a plus-2 rating Friday for AHL Texas in a 7-3 win over Charlotte.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Idaho 2 1 1 — 4
Aces 1 2 0 — 3
First Period — 1, Idaho, Smith 25 (Coyle, Blain), 5:10; 2, Aces, Judson 13 (Hall, Ward), 6:20; 3, Idaho, Gron 17 (Taylor, Galiardi), 17:49. Penalties — Mazzolini, Aces, double-minor, double-misconduct (roughing, unsportsmanlike conduct), 4:23; Taylor, Idaho, minor-misconduct (roughing), 4:23; Crum, Aces (roughing), 20:00.
Second Period — 4, Idaho, Ryder 1 (Blain, Galiardi), 5:17; 5, Aces, Hudson 14 (Kremyr, Trupp), 6:48; 6, Aces, Mele 9 (Hughes, Hall), 14:54 (pp). Penalties — Coyle, Idaho (interference), 10:13; Kremyr, Aces (roughing), 13:27; Ryder, Idaho (roughing), 13:27; Galiardi, Idaho (roughing), 13:27; de Kastrozza, Idaho (hooking), 14:54; Blain, Idaho (cross-checking), 17:00; Clackson, Aces (slashing), 19:56.
Third Period — 7, Idaho, Coyle 7 (Gron, Galiardi), 4:56. Penalties — Mele, Aces (roughing, 15:26; Schaber, Idaho (roughing), 15:26; Coyle, Idaho (cross-checking), 19:35.
Shots on goal — Idaho 10-8-8—26. Aces 18-10-11—39.
Power-play Opportunities — Idaho 0 of 1. Aces 1 of 5.
Goalies — Idaho, Robinson, 25-6-4 (39 shots-36 saves). Aces, Guggenberger, 24-8-5 (26-22).
A — 6,599 (6,399). T — 2:24.
Referee — Chris Pitoscia. Linesmen – Scott Sivulich, Travis Jackson.