Great season doesn't satisfy Alaska Aces

May 3, 2013 

— The Alaska Aces won the Brabham Cup as the ECHL's regular-season champions for a third consecutive season -- no other hockey club has won two in a row in the league's 25-season history. Winning the Brabham also secured the Aces titles for the third straight season as the Western Conference champs and Mountain Division champs.

They delivered the league's best road record and tied for the best home record. They once went 13 straight games without a regulation loss and 11 straight road games without a regulation loss, and they also reeled off nine straight wins -- all those streaks are the second-best such marks in the franchise's 10 ECHL seasons. They generated a seven-game winning streak and two six-game winning streaks too.

Only once in the 72-game regular season did they lose three straight games in regulation. Once they went 24 games -- exactly one-third of the season -- without losing consecutive games in regulation.

Attendance for regular-season home games at Sullivan Arena rose 7.5 percent. During the NHL lockout that covered the first half of the ECHL season, the Aces enjoyed help from four NHLers from Anchorage and generated a .764 winning percentage. Even after the NHLers returned to the world's best league, the Aces racked a .708 winning percentage. All of that came even though Alaska players missed a staggering 334 regular-season games with injuries.

And in the postseason, the club advanced to the second round of the Kelly Cup playoffs for the ninth time in 10 seasons.

All of that makes for a top-shelf rink resume.

And yet you won't find anyone in the Aces organization who is remotely satisfied.

The franchise operates under one standard -- a gold standard.

"One goal: Kelly Cup,'' said Aces coach Rob Murray.

He was sitting in his office at Sullivan Arena one morning this week, reflecting on a season that ended in the anguish of overtime Tuesday night, when the Stockton Thunder administered the dagger that proved the emotional equivalent of a spear to the groin.

The Aces surrendered a goal with .2 of a second left in the first period, a Harrison Reed strike that came after Bobby Hughes and Zach Harrison each just barely missed getting a stick on Thunder passes. They gave up Andrew Clark's game-tying, extra-attacker goal with just five seconds left in regulation. And they absorbed the end of a season on a counterattack in overtime that came seconds after their own 3-on-2 rush came so close -- literally an inch -- to ending things.

As Aces captain Steve Ward said quietly in the aftermath: "Cruel, cruel way to end it.''

That 4-3 defeat on home ice at Sullivan Arena in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal series, after the Aces had already escaped elimination once, goes down as the most piercing loss in franchise history.

Sure, the Aces lost 4-2 to South Carolina at Sullivan in Game 7 of the 2009 Kelly Cup playoffs, but they never led in that game. And, yes, the Aces lost Game 7 of the 2005 conference finals at Sullivan, 2-0 to Trenton, but they trailed 2-0 most of that game.

Tuesday, the Aces owned a 2-0 lead after one period. They owned a 3-2 lead when rookie Andy Taranto scored with less than three minutes left in regulation. That lead held until the final seconds when, a split second before Clark scored the equalizer, earnest Harrison could not get his blade on a bouncing puck to clear it from danger.

In overtime, Chris Clackson and Harrison enjoyed fabulous scoring chances, but Stockton goaltender Olivier Roy got a piece of his glove on both shots from the slot. And on that overtime 3-on-2 Aces rush, which included defenseman Brett Ponich, Tommy Mele drove to the net and barely missed Hughes' centering feed.

When the play kick-started the other way, Stockton's Maxime Boisclair made a pass with his skate, Aces defenseman Brad Gorham got caught pinching up in the neutral zone and Taranto, a winger playing in just his sixth pro game, suddenly found himself, initially, as the only defender back. Stockton's Shawn Weller threaded a pass from right wing just past the stick of the back-checking Ponich, and Thunder rookie defenseman Nik Pokulok turned hero.

"A perfect storm,'' Murray called the end of regulation and the closing sequence of overtime. "There's no excuses, but it was just unbelievable.''

All of which prompted his conclusion: "That's the biggest loss I've ever incurred in my career.''

Still, remember that what the Aces accomplished this season came after Murray retooled the club in the wake of five principal players retiring -- sniper Wes Goldie, first-line center Brian Swanson, and defensemen Bryan Miller, Chad Anderson and Brandon Gentile all moved on with their lives.

The Aces last offseason also lost elite winger Scott Howes, who went to the Central Hockey League, and sniping winger Dan Kissel, who was signed for this season but changed his mind late in the offseason and went to Europe.

"Right now, two days out, playoffs are the end-all,'' Murray said. "You have to give credit to our ability to play well all year, win the Brabham Cup, provide great entertainment to the people of Anchorage.

"You can sit here and be upset -- there's no getting over it -- but the year as a whole was good."

Yet, like a skater circling back to regroup for the breakout, Murray came back to the franchise's gold standard -- only the Kelly Cup suffices.

He cued up the video of that final sequence Tuesday night. Once again, he watched the Aces come so close to forcing Game 7 one moment and the Thunder end the Aces' season the next moment.

The video played. Mele just missed Hughes' centering pass. The Thunder went on the attack. Pokulok shoveled in Weller's pass at the left post.

Murray sighed, and shook his head slowly.

 

This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

 

 

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