Anchorage — Zach Harrison was standing in the hallway outside the Alaska Aces' dressing room after practice Tuesday morning at Sullivan Arena, conducting an interview, when the incoming rounds started landing.
Goaltender Gerald Coleman wandered past and mused whether the conversation was for a long story or perhaps even something book-length.
Next came center Bobby Hughes, smirking and chirping, "Ah, score another empty-netter.''
Harrison just smiled.
"It's always good if they're giving you crap,'' he said.
Things are very good for both Harrison and the Aces these days. The third-line center and penalty killer, coming off a career campaign in the regular season, excelled in helping his club dispatch San Francisco in five games in the opening round of the ECHL's Kelly Cup playoffs.
The Aces entertain the Stockton Thunder in the opener of a best-of-7 Western Conference semifinal series Friday night at Sullivan.
Harrison, 25, earned 4-2--6 totals in five first-round games, trailing only Hughes (5-4--9) in goals and points among Aces. Harrison's plus-6 rating and 26 shots on goal are both top marks among Aces in the postseason. And the third-year pro's five points (3-2--5) in the last three games marks the most points he has scored in any three-game stretch of a pro career that spans 188 combined regular-season and playoff hockey games.
Sure, two of Harrison's last three goals were into an empty net, but in those situations, a head coach goes with players he trusts.
Aces coach Rob Murray has in the past occasionally found Harrison lacking in areas, contending the center needed to be grittier in the tough areas of the rink -- along the boards, in front of the net -- and needed to improve his balance. These days, Murray praises Harrison's improvement.
"His game has developed,'' Murray said. "He wins battles. He doesn't fall down. He's gotten so much better on face-offs.
"I've been hard on him at times, but he's really risen to the occasion. Next to (regular-season leading scorer Nick Mazzolini), he might have been our most consistent player. You've got to get those unsung heroes to have a great playoff run.''
Harrison in the regular season earned career highs in goals and points with 14-20--34 totals in 71 games. His goal total was a particular improvement, considering he scored 13 goals in 104 regular-season games his first two seasons with the Aces.
Harrison points to several factors for his improved production. More than two years after he suffered a broken leg in an Aces game -- he still has a plate and six screws near his right ankle -- Harrison said he went the whole season without having any concerns about his leg, or any small problems with it. That's critical for a guy whose game is predicated on his speed.
Also, his game has simply matured. And after playing a lot of right wing his first two seasons with the Aces, he's been at center, which he prefers, this entire season.
"I think part of it is playing my natural position,'' Harrison said. "I've been a center most of my career. You get to roam and skate more, and when I get that open ice to skate, especially on (Olympic-sized ice at Sullivan), I see the ice better.
"And part of it is confidence from the coach and from my teammates.''
Playing wing prompted hesitation in Harrison's game -- "You don't want to be sitting there thinking, 'What's next?' By then, it's already happened,'' he said -- and complicated things for him in a sport so fast players are at their best when they react immediately.
At center, Harrison said, things come naturally for him.
Plus, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, especially late in the season, Harrison is flourishing from playing so much. His team-leading 71 regular-season games were a career high.
"Playing more games is actually beneficial for me,'' Harrison said. "When you get in a groove of playing at game speed, for me I feel more into the game and like I have more energy. For me, it actually hurts my legs to take a couple days off.''
Shuffling the deck
Hughes, who sits third in the league among playoff scorers with those 5-4--9 totals in five games and leads all scorers in points per game (1.80), sat out practice Tuesday as a maintenance day.
Rookie right wing Andy Taranto, who missed the last three games of the first round with a lower-body injury, did not practice.
Back at practice was rookie defenseman Brad Gorham, the former UAA skater and current BP engineer. Gorham played in Games 1 and 2 of the first round at Sullivan, but didn't make the road trip to San Francisco. While Murray isn't sure yet whether he'll plug Gorham back into the lineup immediately after sweeping three games in San Francisco to end the series, he likes having an option.
"We got the job done with the lineup we had, but we do envision using him again,'' Murray said.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.