Many of the hallmarks that inevitably combine to deliver disappointment were evident in the Alaska Aces’ play Friday night: A sluggish start, errant passes, abundant turnovers, defensive breakdowns and shots that missed the net by considerable margins.
Those shortcomings were compounded by a particularly motivated opponent and generated a predictable result: Las Vegas 4, Alaska 3.
So, 12 games into the ECHL hockey season, the Aces (9-3-0) encounter their first mini-crisis. After winning nine straight games, they have now lost consecutive games for the first time this season, and they have surrendered a season-high four goals in both setbacks.
Not even the comfort of Sullivan Arena, where the Aces traditionally prosper and where a season-high announced crowd of 5,400 gathered on Military Appreciation Weekend, prodded the Aces until time was short.
They cut the Las Vegas (4-7-0) lead to 3-2 seven minutes into the third period, but gave up a goal less than three minutes later. They cut the Wranglers’ advantage to 4-3 with 76 seconds left but could not summon the equalizer and lost their four-game, home-ice winning streak.
Assistant coach Louis Mass, the former Aces defenseman who ran the bench for the second straight game, said he knows the drill because he’s been around the club so long. Long winning streaks slowly breed complacency, Mass said, and the Aces sometimes mistakenly believe home ice will cure their ills.
“Our mindset, historically, is, ‘We’re coming home, we’re going to win’ — like it’s a foregone conclusion,‘’ Mass said. “And then when we get down, we look around like, ‘What’s happening?’ ’’
Mass was in charge because head coach Rob Murray was at a local hospital with his wife, Carolyn, who Friday night gave birth to the couple’s fifth child, according to the team.
It didn’t help the Aces’ cause that the Wranglers arrived for the three-game series with epic inspiration. Alaska swept three games at Las Vegas last month, outscoring the Wranglers 13-4 at Orleans Arena and scoring the final 10 goals of the series.
“They came into our rink and took it to us for three games, and we were embarrassed,’’ said Las Vegas forward Carlo Finucci, the former Nanook. “We got together and said, ‘We’re going to do that to them in their barn.’ ’’
The Aces noticed the Wranglers seemed galvanized.
“They came up with a chip on their shoulder and did what they had to do,’’ said Aces captain Nick Mazzolini.
Even so, Evan Trupp’s power-play strike with 76 seconds to go cut the Wranglers’ cushion to 4-3. That goal, Trupp’s fourth in the last three games and his team-leading seventh of the season, came during a two-man advantage — the Aces pulled goaltender Olivier Roy (26 saves) for an extra attacker with Wranglers captain Geoff Paukovich in the box for elbowing.
But Mitch O’Keefe (31 saves) and company made the visitors’ lead stand on a night when they never trailed.
Earlier in the period, defenseman Kane Lafranchise’s bar-down bullet from the left circle pulled the Aces to within a goal at 3-2, and more than 12 minutes remained in the game. Yet less than three minutes later, Las Vegas’ Robbie Smith scored during a furious goal-mouth scramble that illustrated the Wranglers’ energy: They won a puck battle.
“That fourth goal was huge for us,’’ Finucci said.
Finucci scored one of two second-period goals that gave Las Vegas a 3-1 lead after the teams traded first-period goals — Matt Tassone scored on the power-play for Las Vegas 11 minutes into the game and Mazzolini answered two minutes later.
Las Vegas’ Geoff Irwin restored his team’s lead at 2-1 with a slapshot from above the left circle during an odd-man rush nine minutes into the second period. Two minutes later, Finucci pounced on an Aces turnover, blew into the Alaska zone unchecked, cut to the net and scored for a 3-1 lead.
The Aces again lamented another mediocre start, and alternate captain Jordan Kremyr said such slow beginnings carry over.
“I think it’s stemming from our first periods,’’ Kremyr said. “We haven’t had good starts and it’s leaking into the rest of our game.
“We’ve got to be more focused. We’ll put it on the leadership in the locker room, and put it on our shoulders.’’
Shuffling the deck
Mazzolini and Peter Sivak, who assisted on his goal, each extended their point streaks to nine games.
Rookie defenseman Ben Parker required stitches near his mouth after being hit by a shot from Paukovich while sliding to block a shot in the third period. Aces rookie winger Andy Taranto was hobbled after blocking a shot with his right leg.
Late in the first period, Sivak looked to referee Brett Sheva and then pointed to himself as if to confirm the slashing penalty was on him. Makes sense he was curious since that marked Sivak’s first penalty this season.
Sivak, with 6-17—23 totals in 12 games, leads the circuit in scoring, one point ahead of Florida’s Matthew Pistilli (11-11—22 in 13 games). Sivak fired a game-high six shots on goal and leads the league with 50 shots.
Reach Doyle Woody at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
First Period — 1, Las Vegas, Tassone 3 (Cook, Hughesman), 11:21 (pp); 2, Aces, Mazzolini 4 (Trupp, Sivak), 13:23. Penalties — Reddick, Las Vegas (hooking), 2:22; Crum, Aces (slashing), 11:16; Sivak, Aces (slashing), 19:05.
Second Period — 3, Las Vegas, Irwin 3 (Purves), 8:52; 4, Las Vegas, Finucci 2, 12:03. Penalties -- None.
Third Period — 5, Aces, Lafranchise 2 (Martin, Connolly), 7:22; 6, Las Vegas, Smith 2 (Huxley), 10:15; 7, Aces, Trupp 7 (Connolly, Lafranchise), 18:44 (pp). Penalties — Paukovich, Las Vegs (elbowing), 18:34.
Shots on goal — Las Vegas 10-11-9—30. Aces 14-8-12—34.
Power-play Opportunities — Las Vegas 1 of 2. Aces 1 of 2.
Goalies — Las Vegas, O’Keefe, 1-4-0 (34 shots-30 saves). Aces, Roy, 0-1-0 (30-26).
A — 5,400 (6,399). T — 2:25.
Referee — Brett Sheva. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.