Anchorage — In the past three hockey seasons, the Alaska Aces simply have not surrendered third-period leads and succumbed in regulation.
Instead, they have systematically, ruthlessly turned third-period leads into strangleholds that suffocate opponents.
But nearly every pattern, no matter how firmly established, eventually gets shaken by an outlier, and Saturday night the remarkably resilient Stockton Thunder proved the exception to the rule.
Stockton exploded for four third-period goals and twice roared back from third-period deficits to hang a 5-3 loss on the Aces and even the best-of-7, ECHL Western Conference semifinal series at one game apiece.
Dating back to the start of the 2010-11 regular season, the Aces had gone 123 consecutive games in which they owned a lead after two periods without losing in regulation. They were 116-0-7 in that stretch, and 13-0 in playoff games they led after two periods.
After absorbing Saturday’s ambush, though, the Aces find themselves exactly where they were after two home matches in their first-round series against the San Francisco Bulls, tied 1-1 and facing three road games.
In that series, the Aces swept those three games at the Cow Palace to eliminate the Bulls. As disappointed as they were Saturday night — the hallway outside the Aces’ dressing room was so quiet you could hear a puck drop on the rubber matting — they vowed to find their equilibrium after a game in which Bobby Hughes’ hat trick went for naught.
“It happened in the first series,’’ Hughes said. “I know you’ve heard it 20 times — never get too high or too low. It’s just one game.’’
The Thunder, meanwhile, delivered yet another stirring comeback in a Kelly Cup postseason during which escaping dire situations has become their calling card. Saturday marked the third time in nine playoff games the Thunder have overcome a deficit of at least two goals to win, though Saturday marked their first time doing it on the road.
Stockton came from two goals down to forge a 3-2 overtime win in Game 1 of the first round against Las Vegas. Facing elimination in Game 6, they battled back from a 3-0 third-period deficit to win 5-3.
“Obviously, you don’t like making that a habit,’’ said Stockton coach Matt Thomas. “But it’s playoffs — nothing comes easy.’’
The Aces, who won Friday’s series opener 5-2, led 2-1 through two periods Saturday, courtesy of Hughes’ two first-period goals, the first on the power play after the puck took a fluke ricochet off Stockton defenseman David Gibb and the second short-handed.
Stockton’s second-period goal from Harrison Reed came on a similarly flukey bounce — good or ill, obviously, depending on your loyalties — after a pass by Aces defenseman Corey Syvret bounced off teammate Zach Harrison.
“You create your own luck,’’ Hughes said. “Yeah, they got some breaks, but they were working hard for them.’’
Stockton captain Garet Hunt delivered a 2-2 tie two minutes into the second period when he redirected Tony DeHart’s shot from the right point past Aces goaltender Gerald Coleman (19 saves).
Still, Hughes restored Alaska’s lead at 3-2 less than six minutes later when he beat Olivier Roy (24 saves) to give him three multiple-goal games in the last four matches and a league high-tying eight playoff goals.
Less than five minutes after that, though, Stockton’s Ryan Hayes, stationed at the bottom of the left circle, collected DeHart’s sharp diagonal pass through the Aces zone and fired in one motion, beating Coleman over the shoulder on the short side for a 3-3 tie.
And exactly three minutes after that, Matt Bergland, a game-time decision because of injury, scored at the right post to give the Thunder their first lead of the evening, 4-3, before a stunned, announced crowd of 4,638. DeHart’s shot from the center point with less than five minutes to go went wide right, but kicked back hard off the end boards. Bergland got his stick on it before Coleman could cover his post or Aces defenseman Sean Curry could tie up Bergland.
The Thunder played with five defensemen because standout blueliner Ryan Constant broke his left wrist in practice Thursday at Sullivan and underwent surgery.
Reed added an empty-net goal in the waning seconds, shooting all the way from the end boards in his zone.
“We didn’t come with our best, and we’re going to have to come back like we did last series,’’ Coleman said. “We’re not getting too down.
“We’ve been through it. They’re a good team. Even short on defense, they found a way to win.’’
Aces coach Rob Murray thought his team’s level of play, and particularly execution, dropped in the second half of the game, while the Thunder kept pushing back.
“It’s playoff hockey — you just can’t throw your sticks out there and expect to win at home. I tip my hat to them. They kept coming.’’
And that’s just what Thomas expects out of the Aces in Thursday night’s Game 3 at Stockton Arena.
“There’s four teams left in the Western Conference, and eight teams left out of 23,’’ Thomas said. “Everyone knows how to win, how to battle back, how to lay it on the line.
“I expect them to come and try to impose their will on us.’’
The Aces expect nothing less of themselves.
“We have great leaders on this team who will force guys to get better,’’ Coleman said.
Shuffling the deck
With 8-4—12 totals in seven games, Hughes is tied for the playoff lead in goals and points with Florida’s Mathieu Roy, who has the same totals in the same number of games.
Hughes owns 7-4—11 totals in his six-game point streak.
Alexandre Imbeault furnished the Aces two assists Saturday to give him 1-4—5 totals in his four-game point streak.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335
Stockton 0 1 4 — 5
Aces 2 0 1 — 3
First Period — 1, Aces, Hughes 6 (Ponich, Imbeault), 14:31 (pp); 2, Aces, Hughes 7 (Curry), 18:34 (sh). Penalties — Hudson, Aces (tripping), 10:00; Little, Stockton (hooking), 12:33; Pokulok, Stockton (tripping), 14:57; Mazzolini, Aces (slashing), 18:19.
Second Period — 3, Stockton, Reed 3, 4:58. Penalties — Weller, Stockton (holding), :22; Bennett, Aces (tripping), 2:41; Bennett, Aces (tripping), 14:11; Hayes, Stockton (holding), 16:13.
Third Period — 4, Stockton, Hunt 2 (DeHart, Clark), 2:00; 5, Aces, Hughes 8 (Imbeault, Lafranchise), 7:51; 6, Stockton, Hayes 4 (DeHart, Bergland), 12:15; 7, Stockton, Bergland 3 (Little, Levesque), 15:15; 8, Stockton, Reed 4, 19:52 (en). Penalties — Nunn, Aces (tripping), 5:24; Curry, Aces (roughing), 16:13; Reed, Stockton (tripping), 16:22.
Shots on goal — Stockton 9-6-9—24. Aces 8-5-14—27.
Power-play Opportunities — Stockton 0 of 6. Aces 1 of 5.
Goalies — Stockton, Roy, 5-4 (27 shots-24 saves). Aces, Coleman, 3-2 (23-19).
A — 4,638 (6,399). T — 2:28.
Referee — Frederic Leblanc. Linesmen — Scott Sivulich, Steve Glines.