Anchorage — In the culture of hockey, getting incessantly chirped by your teammates is a sign of affection and praise, and good times.
And, man, are the Alaska Aces just feeding it to Zach Harrison these days, as they did again after handling the Stockton Thunder, 5-2, on Friday night in the opener of an ECHL Western Conference semifinal series.
“Oh, Geno?’’ Nick Mazzolini said in reference to his fellow Aces center. The nickname, which Harrison thinks was pinned on him by winger Garry Nunn (two assists) has two meanings — a goal is sometimes called a Geno and Pittsburgh Penguins high-scoring forward Evgeni Malkin goes by “Geno.’’
Aces goaltender Gerald Coleman (23 saves), meanwhile, repeatedly raised his arms and lowered them in the hallway outside the team’s dressing room at Sullivan Arena afterward, genuflecting to tease Harrison.
“It’s always good when they’re razzing you,’’ Harrison said.
And it is particularly good to be Zach Harrison lately.
Friday, he opened the scoring for the Aces and assisted on their next two goals. It was his second three-point performance in the last three playoff games and it gives him eight points — four goals, four helpers — in the last four games. With 5-4—9 totals in the Kelly Cup playoffs, he’s tied with Bobby Hughes for the team lead in scoring.
All this, mind you, from a third-line center who doesn’t get power-play time.
“It feels great, what can I say?’’ Harrison said. “If you go on a run like that, it obviously feels good to contribute in the scoring column.’’
Aces winger Alexandre Imbeault, who scored a goal Friday, said Harrison’s emergence in his third year as a pro — Harrison’s 14 regular-season goals were a career high, by far — has proved vital for Alaska.
“He’s got some offensive tools you sometimes don’t see in games because he plays in a defensive role,’’ Imbeault said. “But he’s got great speed. I think the rest is just a matter of confidence. He can contribute offensively.’’
Then Imbeault grinned, and continued.
“He’s lived with me all year — it rubs off,’’ he said. “I told him, ‘Every time I play with a guy or live with him, he goes up.’ ’’
Aces assistant coach Louis Mass, who has been with the franchise as a player or coach throughout its 10 ECHL seasons, said Harrison in his three seasons with the club has improved more than any player he can recall.
Harrison’s goal came 10 minutes into the game, when he roofed defenseman Corey Syvret’s 2-on-1 feed over the glove of Stockton goalie Olivier Roy (34 saves). Imbeault added a goal less than two minutes later.
Although Gabriel Levesque beat Coleman in tight in the opening minute of the second period, Harrison’s right wing, Alex Hudson, restored Alaska’s two-goal lead at 3-1 with a beautiful individual effort later in the period.
Hudson blew through the middle of the ice and past former UAA defenseman Scott Warner with an outside-in move, then whipped a wrister off Roy’s left arm an in. Warner, of Anchorage, made his pro debut because Stockton standout defenseman Ryan Constant suffered a broken wrist in practice at Sullivan on Thursday and underwent surgery.
Aces defenseman B.J. Crum and winger Evan Trupp scored third-period goals to offset one by Stockton’s Shawn Weller and give the Alaska franchise an eighth consecutive Game 1 win, a streak that dates back to a 2010 series with Stockton.
Speaking of 2010, that Game 1 win for the Aces — in a best-of-5 series Stockton won in four games — came when Crum scored two third-period goals. Crum, who has six goals in 184 career ECHL regular-season games, has furnished the Aces four goals in eight career Kelly Cup playoff games, and three of those strikes have come against Stockton.
Game 2 in the best-of-7 series is Saturday night, when Thunder bench boss Matt Thomas expects his team to be more engaged. Stockton on Friday generated just 11 shots on Coleman through the first two periods.
“We played a sloppy, uninspired game,’’ Thomas said. “The good thing is we know we were brutal. It’s not like we played great and lost 5-2. We were brutal and lost 5-2.’’
And that came in a game that was surprisingly gentle until some hurt feelings in the last minute.
The Aces know winning one game is just that — one game in a best-of-7 series. In the first round, they won their opener on home ice against San Francisco, then lost Game 2 at home before sweeping three road games to dispatch the Bulls.
The Aces also know the resilient Thunder roared back from a 3-2 series deficit to beat Las Vegas in seven games in the first round.
“The biggest challenge for us is to come back with the same effort,’’ Imbeault said. “We know what happened two weeks ago. It’s just one (game). In a 2-3-2 series, you have to take care of home ice.’’
Shuffling the deck
In the four conference semifinal series that opened Friday, the Aces were the only home team to win. Road teams have gone 24-23 in the Kelly Cup playoffs this season.
Harrison led all players with seven shots on goal. He and his linemates, Hudson and Chris Clackson, combined for 14 of Alaska’s 39 shots.
Nunn owns at least a point in each of his five playoff game — he missed one game against the Bulls with an injury — and owns 2-5—7 totals in that span.
Coleman is 8-0-0 against Stockton this season.
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Stockton 0 1 1 — 2
Aces 2 1 2 — 5
First Period — 1, Aces, Harrison 5 (Syvret, Lafranchise), 10:07; 2, Aces, Imbeault 2 (Hall, Harrison), 12:01. Penalties — Hunter, Stockton (hooking), 7:33; Harrison, Aces (slashing), 12:26.
Second Period — 3, Stockton, Levesque 1 (Hunter, Bosclair), :55; 4, Aces, Hudson 3 (Harrison), 14:03. Penalties — Abney, Stockton (cross-checking), 8:41; Clackson, Aces (hooking), 18:08.
Third Period — 5, Aces, Crum 2 (Trupp, Nunn), 6:44; 6, Aces, Trupp 1 (Mazzolini, Nunn), 11;34; 7, Stockton, Weller 5 (Reed, Levesque), 13:34. Penalties — Mazzolini, Aces (cross-checking), 16:43; Hunt, Stockton (unsportsmanlike conduct), 16:43; Harrison, Aces, double-minor (roughing), 19:36; Hayes, Stockton, double-minor (roughing), 19:36; Clackson, Aces, double-minor (roughing), 19:43; Hunter, Stockton, double-minor (roughing), 19:43; Curry, Aces, major (fighting), 19:43; Hunt, Stockton, major (fighting), 19:43; Ponich, Aces (roughing), 19:43; Abney, Stockton, double-minor (roughing), 19:43.
Shots on goal — Stockton 5-6-14—25. Aces 11-18-10—39.
Power-play Opportunities — Stockton 0 of 2. Aces 0 of 3.
Goalies — Stockton, Roy, 4-4 (39 shots-34 saves). Aces, Coleman, 3-1 (25-23).
A — 4,289 (6,399). T — 2:25.
Referee — Frederic Leblanc. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.