Anchorage — With their playoff position staked out and nothing critical at stake in their final two ECHL regular-season hockey games, the Alaska Aces will rest leading scorer Nick Mazzolini and winger Alexandre Imbeault this week -- neither will make the road trip to California.
Mazzolini, the club's leading scorer and tied for the league lead in goals, said winning a goal-scoring title pales in comparison to the prospect of being well rested for the Kelly Cup playoffs.
Still, Mazzolini, who logs heavy ice time because he plays in all situations, didn't want to feel like he was leaving his teammates hanging when they play the Ontario Reign on Friday and Saturday nights. Mazzolini said coach Rob Murray left the decision to him.
"It was actually a really tough decision,'' Mazzolini said. "On the one hand, I want the rest. On the other hand, I don't want to ditch out on the guys. At this time of year, rest is the most important thing.''
Murray said he wants Mazzolini, the team's best player this season -- the center owns 36-35--71 totals in 68 games, and is a team-best, plus-13 -- healthy and fresh for the postseason.
"He's our top player and he's a guy we can't afford to lose,'' Murray said. "In any scenario, I can't afford to have him in jeopardy.''
Mazzolini said he will likely hit the gym a couple times and do some skating while the team is on the road.
Meanwhile, with first-place overall locked up -- and thus, home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs secured -- the Aces also can afford to leave Imbeault home to get treatment on his ailing back. The scoring winger has missed 10 of the club's last 15 games to injury.
With Mazzolini and Imbeault, top-six forwards, out of the lineup, other forwards are likely to get enhanced ice time against Ontario. Third-line center Zach Harrison, for instance, in Wednesday's practice skated with wingers Evan Trupp and Garry Nunn.
"Some guys are going to be playing more than usual and they should have something to prove,'' Murray said. "In the long run, we're hoping not to get anyone injured this weekend.''
The Aces on Wednesday released rookie winger Jarred Smith, who earned 4-8--12 and plus-8 totals in 42 games. Murray must submit his 23-man playoff roster to the league by 11 a.m. ADT Monday. Releasing Smith indicates the Aces might be adding an amateur player and could also be saving a roster spot in case either defenseman Corey Syvret or defenseman William Wrenn return from the American Hockey League.
Murray said Smith was squeezed out by the numbers game and hopes the rookie gets picked up off waivers. He championed Smith's professionalism.
"It's (tough),'' Murray said. "He's done everything we asked. He's been a great soldier about not playing or sitting out, but still working hard and not bitching about it.''
Murray said goaltenders Gerald Coleman and Mark Guggenberger will split the starts in Ontario.
Shuffling the deck
With 48 wins, the most by an ECHL team since Florida's 49 in 2008-09, the Aces still have a chance to crack the 50-win milestone in a 72-game regular season.
The last league clubs to win 50 or more games did so in 2007-08. Cincinnati won 55 games and went on to win the Kelly Cup in six games against Las Vegas, and the Texas Wildcatters won 52 games before being eliminated in the second round.
The ECHL announced its All-Rookie Team on Wednesday. Voting came from coaches, broadcasters, media relations directors and media. Here are the honorees:
Goaltender - Ryan Zapolski, South Carolina Stingrays (26-11-2, 1.66 GAA, .942 save pct., 8 shutouts). Defense -- Cameron Burt, Ontario Reign (59 games, 1-36--37, plus-19); Sasha Guimond, Gwinnett Gladiators, 57 games, 12-35--47, minus-4). Forwards -- Mario Lamoureux, Ontario Reign (69 games, 25-38--63, plus-30); David Pacan, Cincinnati Cyclones (57 games, 14-38--52, plus-10); David Vallorani, Readin Royals (66 games, 17-41--58, plus-18).
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.