Unwavering team defense and stifling goaltending sparked the Alaska Aces’ charge through this hockey season, but those essentials have vanished of late.
And now the Aces’ early advantage in the ECHL’s Western Conference semifinals has likewise disappeared.
After opening the scoring early in Thursday night’s Game 3, the regular-season champions quickly surrendered three goals in a span of less than four minutes, which earned Alaska goaltender Mark Guggenberger the hook and landed the Stockton Thunder an eventual 5-3 victory in California.
Stockton, which stormed back from a one-goal, third-period deficit in Anchorage last Saturday night to seize a 5-3 win in Game 2, owns a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series entering Friday’s Game 4 at Stockton Arena.
Only once all regular season and through the first round-plus of the playoffs, 78 games in all, did the Aces surrender as many as 10 goals in consecutive games, as they have now done a second time. The Aces suffered back-to-back losses in early November when they gave up 12 goals in consecutive games, and now they own back-to-back losses in late April after allowing 10 goals.
The tormentor on both occasions: Stockton.
Game 3 began promisingly enough for the Aces. Zach Harrison’s waist-high deflection of Chris Clackson’s shot from atop the right circle beat Stockton goaltender Olivier Roy (29 saves) less than three minutes into the game.
But the match turned sharply in the next six-plus minutes. Stockton’s Matt Bergland, the hero in Game 2, made the Aces suffer for a turnover at about the five-minute mark, when he whistled a high-slot wrister over Guggenberger’s glove. Just 49 seconds later, after Aces defenseman B.J. Crum ineffectively used his hand to bat the puck out of mid-air at his line, Maxime Boisclair wired a laser of a wrister past Guggenberger’s glove to give the Thunder a 2-1 lead.
On both Stockton goals, Guggenberger may have been screened by defenseman Brett Ponich, who endured a tough night — Stockton’s fifth goal, from Harrison Reed in the third period, appeared to go in off Ponich.
In any event, Bergland pushed the home team’s lead to 3-1 at the 9:06 mark when speedy Matt Reber blew around Aces defenseman Corey Syvret on right wing, cut in on Guggenberger and got off a weak shot. Guggenberger clearly thought he had the puck trapped in his gear. But it actually leaked out to his right, where Bergland swooped in for the tap-in.
Exit Guggenberger, after four saves on seven shots. Enter Gerald Coleman.
“Even Boisclair’s goal, that’s a pretty nice shot, but that’s a stop Guggs usually makes,’’ Aces coach Rob Murray said by cellphone. “The third one, I just had to pull him, just to shake things up.’’
Bobby Hughes, coming off a Game 2 hat trick, cut Stockton’s lead to 3-2 late in the third period with his playoff-leading ninth goal. He converted from the bottom of the right circle off Alexandre Imbeault’s pass from the left-wing wall.
The Thunder, who trailed 2-0 after one period in each of the first two games in the series, liked their position heading into the first intermission.
“I think the big thing for us is we wanted to have a good first period, regardless of what the score was, because we haven’t really had good first periods in the playoffs,’’ said Stockton coach Matt Thomas.
Yet another Aces turnover led to Andrew Clark’s goal midway through the second period to give Stockton a 4-2 lead. Harrison Reed’s third-period shot, which appeared to glance off Ponich, pumped the Thunder lead to 5-2.
“It had lucky eyes,’’ Thomas said of Reed’s shot.
Aces rookie winger Andy Taranto, back after missing five games with a lower-body injury, pulled the Aces to within two goals at 5-3 midway through the third period with a backhander off a Hughes feed.
Alaska’s top line of center Nick Mazzolini and wingers Garry Nunn and Evan Trupp continued to struggle. Nunn and Trupp each ate a minus-3 — like Ponich — and Mazzolini went minus-2.
Thursday’s Game 4 serves as a huge swing game. An Aces win means they would be back to even, and that they would return home for a Game 6 regardless of the outcome of Game 5 in Stockton on Sunday.
“I told the guys after, ‘We’re OK, forget about it, put it behind you and move on,’ ” Murray said. “ ‘Think about what you have to do better (in Game 4)’ It’s the playoffs, it’s not easy.’’
Thomas echoed that sentiment — nothing is given in the postseason.
“You’d like to pinpoint a pivotal game, but they’re all critical,’’ Thomas said. “That’s the reality.’’
Shuffling the deck
Murray said Coleman will get the start in Game 4.
Coleman stopped 20 of 22 shots Thursday but took the loss because he gave up the game-winning goal.
Murray said captain Steve Ward, who sat out Thursday with a lower-body injury, will return to the lineup for Game 4. And he said winger Tommy Mele will also be inserted. Murray said he had not decided which forward Mele will replace.
With 9-5—14 totals in eight games, Hughes leads all playoff scorers in goals and points.
Hughes and Harrison (six goals) have accounted for nearly half of Alaska’s goals — 15 of 31 — in the playoffs.
Harrison (6-4—10 totals in eight games) is tied for fifth among playoff scorers.
Stockton is 5-0 on home ice in the playoffs. Alaska’s loss was its first road setback of the postseason — the Aces are 3-1 on the road.
Imbeault stretched his point streak to five games — he owns 1-5—6 totals in that span.
Stockton’s Reed owns a five-game point streak in which he has furnished 3-3—6 totals.
The Aces killed all three Thunder power plays and have killed 28 of their opponents’ 29 power plays in the playoffs.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces 2 0 1— 3
Stockton 3 1 1 — 5
First Period — 1, Aces, Harrison 6 (Clackson, Curry), 2:28; 2, Stockton, Bergland 4 (Hunt, Oslanski), 5:09; 3, Stockton, Boisclair 1 (Hayes, Clark), 5:58; 4, Stockton, Bergland 5 (Reber), 9:06; 5, Aces, Hughes 9 (Imbeault, Taranto), 16:03. Penalties — Syvret, Aces (roughing), 2:47; Weller, Stockton (slashing), 9:40.
Second Period — 6, Stockton, Clark 2 (Hunt, Hayes), 11:33. Penalties — Gorham, Aces (tripping), 1:35; Hunter, Stockton (roughing), 13:09; Clackson, Aces, double-minor, served by Hall (roughing), 13:09; Little, Stockton (roughing), 17:17.
Third Period — 7, Stockton, Reed 5 (Boisclair, Bergland), 7:26; 8, Aces, Taranto 2 (Hughes, Crum), 9:26. Penalties — None.
Shots on goal — Aces 14-11-7—32. Stockton 11-9-9—29.
Power-play Opportunities — Aces 0 of 2. Stockton 0 of 3.
Goalies — Aces, Guggenberger (7 shots-4 saves); Coleman (3-3), entered 9:06 1st period (22-10). Stockton, Roy, (6-4) (32-29).
A — 3,297 (9,737). T — 2:19.
Referee — Nic Leduc. Linesmen — Brett Martin, Shawn Morgan.