The Alaska Aces’ playoff-opening victory Friday night featured many of the hallmarks that highlighted their peak performances in delivering the ECHL’s best regular-season record.
Superior special teams, depth of scoring, strong goaltending and tenacity tempered by discipline all added up to a 5-1 victory over the San Francisco Bulls at Sullivan Arena.
The Aces outshot the Bulls 40-21, scored two power-play goals, snuffed four San Francisco power plays, received goals from five different guys and points from 11 of 16 skaters, and played from ahead all evening.
“Obviously, guys were ready,’’ said winger Garry Nunn, who opened the scoring with a first-period strike. “We’ve been waiting for this all year. We came out, got off to a strong start and continued from there.’’
On a night when the Brabham Cup awarded to the regular season champions was unveiled on the Olympic ice before the opening face-off — the Aces are the only team in the hockey circuit’s 25-season history to rack three straight Brabham Cups — Alaska clicked from the outset before an announced crowd of 4,002.
That earned the top-seeded Aces a 1-0 edge in the best-of-7, Western Conference quarterfinals series that continues Saturday night at Sullivan.
Gerald Coleman, who backstopped the Aces to the 2011 Kelly Cup, stopped 20 shots.
Against the eighth-seeded Bulls — and eight Western Conference teams qualify for the postseason — the Aces tilted the game for good when Bobby Hughes and Alexandre Imbeault scored goals less than two minutes apart early in the second period.
Hughes won a stick battle for the puck with Bulls defenseman Mikael Tam high in the San Francisco zone, broke in on goaltender Thomas Heemskerk and went from his backhand to his forehand for the goal that delivered a 2-0 lead. In short order, Imbeault roofed Hughes’ power-play feed to pump the cushion to 3-0.
“That was huge, to get it to 3-0,’’ Hughes said. “The biggest thing is we didn’t sit back after that, and we kept pressing.’’
Zach Harrison added a goal late in the second period when he picked up a pass from defenseman Brett Ponich along the right-wing boards in his own zone and set sail. With rookie winger Andy Taranto driving the net to push back the defense, Harrison ripped a wrister from the inside edge of the left circle off the left post and in to chase Heemskerk, who was relieved by Taylor Nelson.
Taranto, the former UAF sniper who joined the Aces last week, added his first pro goal in the third period. Cutting right-to-left through the high slot, he steered Imbeault’s power-play pass behind Nelson.
Aces coach Rob Murray said there’s always some degree of trepidation entering the postseason, but that his team’s thorough performance should alleviate that.
“I thought we defended well, took advantage of offensive opportunities, we converted on a couple power plays, penalty kill was strong — a lot of good things happened,’’ Murray said. “It’ll calm a lot of nerves, and hopefully we can move forward and continue to play that way.’’
Several Aces said they put seeding — they are first, the Bulls are eighth — out of their mind. The playoffs are known as the second season, and although the Aces went 7-1-1 against the Bulls in the regular season, the Aces remember that the Bulls won two of three games in a January series at Sullivan.
“This is one of the best games we’ve played start to finish,’’ Coleman said.
About the only mystery in the late going was whether Coleman would bag a shutout — and he’s a guy who likes to laugh and say, “Shutouts are over-rated.’’
The prospect of a playoff shutout to go with his two in the regular season disappeared with less than six minutes to go when San Francisco’s Kris Belan blew in on a short-handed breakaway and scored. Still, Coleman has limited opponents to one goal or none in 14 of his 33 starts this season.
“I was thinking, ‘How am I going to lose this one?’ ” Coleman mused, then shrugged his shoulders. “Playoff time, you don’t really care about stats, only wins.’’
Shuffling the deck
Brad Gorham, the former UAA defenseman who occasionally helps out the Aces and had played one game for them in the last two and a half months, had an assist and a plus-2 rating.
Harrison and Nunn led the Aces with five shots each.
Friday marked the seventh consecutive win in a Game 1 for the Aces, who are 19-6 all-time in Game 1 of series.
In all regular-season and playoff games over the last three seasons, the Aces are now 117-0-7 when they lead after two periods. That includes a 14-0 record in the playoffs when leading after two.
Elsewhere in the Western Conference, Ontario scored with 30 seconds left in regulation at Utah and beat the Grizzlies 2-1 in overtime to take a 3-0 lead in the series. And Stockton roared back from a two-goal deficit after two periods to beat Las Vegas 3-2 in overtime in the series opener between the clubs.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
SF 0 0 1 -- 1
Aces 1 3 1 -- 5
First Period -- 1, Aces, Nunn 1 (Trupp, Lafranchise), 8:48. Penalties -- Belan, SF (tripping), 11:52; Hudson, Aces, major (fighting), 14:48; Langdon, SF, major (fighting), 14:48; Clarkson, Aces (roughing), 14:48; Belan, SF (roughing), 14:48; Gorham, Aces (boarding), 15:21; Tam, SF (cross-checking), 18:53.
Second Period -- 2, Aces, Hughes 1 (Gorham), 2:35; 3, Aces, Imbeault 1 (Hughes, Ward), 4:24 (pp); 4, Aces, Harrison 1 (Ponich), 15:24. Penalties -- C. Ouellet, SF (slashing), 3:19; Kwiet, SF (hooking), 5:44; Gorham, Aces (slashing), 18:03.
Third Period -- 5, Aces, Taranto 1 (Imbeault, Syvret), 11:13 (pp); 6, SF, Belan 1, 14:20 (sh). Penalties -- Tam, SF (cross-checking), 5:12; C. Ouellet, SF (interference), 9:26; Curry, Aces (roughing), 11:46; Kwiet, SF, minor-misconduct, served by Cameron (roughing), 12:55; Grant, SF (misconduct), 12:55; Ward, Aces (interference), 16:59; Curry, Aces (roughing), 18:52; Belan, SF (roughing), 18:52; Ponich, Aces, major (fighting), 18:52; Langdon, SF, major (fighting), 18:52.
Shots on goal -- SF 7-8-6--21. Aces 18-11-11--40.
Power-play Opportunities -- SF 0 of 4. Aces 2 of 7.
Goalies -- SF, Heemskerk, 0-1 (28 shots-24 saves); Nelson, enter 15:24 2nd period (12-11). Aces, Coleman, 1-0 (21-20).
A -- 4,002 (6,399). T -- 2:23.
Referee -- Joe Sullivan. Linesmen -- Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.