The Alaska Aces’ mission is clear: Win their next hockey game.
Otherwise, the only things left for them are packing their gear one last time, a somber flight home and exit interviews.
That’s the dire situation for the ECHL’s regular-season champions after Stockton rookie Andrew Clark scored 13 minutes, 3 seconds into overtime Friday night to give the Thunder a 2-1 victory at Stockton Arena that furnished them a 3-1 cushion in the best-of-7, Western Conference semifinal series.
The Aces believed icing should have been whistled on the sequence that delivered Stockton’s third win in three overtimes in these Kelly Cup playoffs.
And shortly after Aces defenseman Kane Lafranchise lost the puck behind his net, Stockton Garet Hunt put the puck out front for Clark. Clark squeezed a shot between the right post and the left skate and glove of Alaska goaltender Gerald Coleman to end the Aces’ first OT game this postseason.
That decisive strike delighted an announced crowd of 4,298. It also marked the second time in three games the Thunder worked back from a deficit after two periods to win — Alaska led 1-0 through 40 minutes Friday — and the fourth time in these playoffs they have won when trailing after 40 minutes.
Stockton has won three straight games since Alaska seized the series opener in Anchorage. The Aces have lost three consecutive games for just the second time this season, a span of 80 combined regular-season and playoff games.
“It’s unfortunate,’’ Aces coach Rob Murray said by cellphone. “A lot of times in overtime, the goal isn’t necessarily a pretty goal, and that one wasn’t — just a jam play.’’
The Aces were left pondering what might have been. They were unable to score on their power play in overtime — ditto for the Thunder — and wasted a glorious even-strength chance in extra time when Tim Hall and Alex Hudson enjoyed a 2-on-1. But Hall’s diagonal pass from the right wing was too far ahead of Hudson and forced the right-handed-shooting winger to stop the puck with his left skate. Thunder reinforcements arrived before Hudson could collect the puck.
Stockton outshot Alaska 10-1 in overtime, when it still showed some jump in its collective stride, as it had since Eric Hunter forged the equalizer midway through the third period.
The Thunder have won nine consecutive Kelly Cup overtime games under bench boss Matt Thomas.
Coleman (33 saves) and Olivier Roy (33 saves) each gave his club ample opportunity to win.
Coleman went untested through one period — Alaska owned an 11-3 bulge in shots through 20 minutes — but in a one-minute stretch of the second period made a big save on Hunter and two on Harrison Reed. Almost immediately off the face-off that followed Hunter’s game-tying backhander, Coleman snuffed Matt Bergland’s chance in close.
Roy, who has started all 11 Stockton playoff games, made a huge pad save on Bobby Hughes in the first period. He got a piece of his glove on Hall’s 2-on-1 wrister from the right circle in the second period and used his glove to stab Garry Nunn’s right-wing wrister with six minutes to go in regulation.
Alaska played without winger Chris Clackson, who the ECHL suspended one game for a second-period hit on Hunter in Stockton’s 5-3 victory Thursday in Game 3. With Clackson out and Alaska’s top line struggling in two rounds of the playoffs, Aces coach Rob Murray retooled all three of his lines.
The Aces got off to a strong start and grabbed a 1-0 lead when their top regular-season scorer, first-line center Nick Mazzolini, struck on Alaska’s first power, about 12 minutes into the game.
After scoring a team-high 36 goals in 68 games, which tied for second on the circuit in the regular season, Mazzolini entered the evening with one goal in eight playoff games. Stationed on the right-wing wall with the man advantage, he fished a Brad Gorham pass out of his skates, took a couple of strides into the circle and blew a high slapper over Roy’s glove.
Alaska’s lead held until Hunter struck midway through the third period.
Aces winger Hudson got the shaft of his stick on Tony DeHart’s slapper from the left point — the blast broke Hudson’s stick — and slowed the puck as it veered into a group of players between the face-off circles. The puck eventually came out near the right post, where Hunter shoveled it past a sprawling Coleman while falling to the ice.
Stockton made a concerted push after that, which forced the Aces to survive a couple of regulation sequences in which they got trapped in their own zone for extended stretches.
Ryan Hayes, who also assisted on Clark’s game-winner, was afforded a great chance to be the hero about 75 seconds before Clark scored. But he whiffed on Clark’s feed at the right post.
Soon enough, though, Clark continued Stockton’s run of overtime magic.
“I thought we played well again, but we can’t get a bounce,’’ said Aces captain Steve Ward. “It’s one game at a time, the season’s on the line.
“We’ve got to keep coming with that same confidence and swagger we had all year. If you start gripping the stick, bad things happen. Stockton’s playing with that confidence, and it shows.’’
The Aces must win Game 5 Sunday to steer the series back to Anchorage for Game 6, which would be Tuesday night at Sullivan Arena.
“Realistically, you come down here and all it takes is one (win) out of three to regain home-ice advantage,’’ Murray said. “I’d be a lot more comfortable sitting here telling you we’re going for our second win here on Sunday, but it wasn’t meant to be.’’
Shuffling the deck
The Aces killed all four Thunder power plays Friday, have killed all 15 in the series and, in two rounds, have killed 32 of opponents’ 33 power plays.
Ward returned to the lineup after missing Game 3 with a lower-body injury.
Stockton improved to 6-0 at home in these playoffs.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces 1 0 0 0 — 1
Stockton 0 0 1 1 — 2
First Period — 1, Aces, Mazzolini 2 (Gorham, Nunn), 11:52 (pp). Penalties — DeHart, Stockton (high-sticking), 11:06; Ward, Aces (tripping), 14:07.
Second Period — None. Penalties — Levesque, Stockton (holding), 9:46; Nunn, Aces (holding), 15:50; Mazzolini, Aces (slashing), 18:29.
Third Period — 2, Stockton, Hunter 1 (Hunt, Hayes), 10:25. Penalties — Weller, Stockton (hooking), 12:21.
Overtime — 3, Stockton, Clark 3 (Hunt, Hayes), 13:03. Penalties — Nunn, Aces (high-sticking), :19; Weller, Stockton (roughing), 7:12.
Shots on goal — Aces 11-10-12-1—34. Stockton 3-13-9-10—35.
Power-play Opportunities — Aces 1 of 4. Stockton 0 of 4.
Goalies — Aces, Coleman, 3-4 (35 shots-33 saves). Stockton, Roy, 7-4 (34-33).
A — 4,298 (9,737). T — 2:54.
Referee — Joe Sullivan. Linesmen – Shaun Martin, Zach Thornton.