With Olivier Roy summoned to the American Hockey League earlier this week, the Alaska Aces' goaltending load fell onto the shoulders of veteran Gerald Coleman.
Wednesday night, he looked like a guy who can carry it.
"Guess I have to,'' Coleman said with a laugh.
Coleman, in just his fourth game back from offseason hip surgery, stopped 24 shots to backstop the Aces to a series-opening 2-1 ECHL win over the Idaho Steelheads at Sullivan Arena.
Coleman made big saves on former UAA winger Tommy Grant and Andrew Conboy inside the final five minutes to improve to 3-0-1.
Coleman and Grant dueled all evening before an announced crowd of 3,756.
Grant furnished Idaho's only goal, a whistling wrister from the left circle over Coleman's glove 28 seconds after Aces winger Tommy Mele pushed the lead to 2-0 early in the third period.
Grant was credited with five shots on goal, and he arguably had six, all of them Grade-A opportunities.
"I think he got the better of me tonight, unfortunately,'' Grant said. "It's nice to be back on the big (Olympic-sized) ice, and back here to see some old friends.''
Coleman's glove save on Grant's bid from the left circle off the rush about eight minutes into the third period to go was among his best work. The 6-foot-5 Coleman pushed from his left to right and snatch Grant's bid.
"You can't really do anything about that one,'' Grant said. "That's just a great save.''
Coleman squeezed his pads together to rebuff Grant's breakaway in the first period, stopped him on consecutive chances late in the second period and closed his pads to deny Grant's slapper from the left circle, off the rush, with just under five minutes to go.
"A guy like Grant can fire the puck,'' Coleman said.
Coleman said he knew last Sunday, when the team arrived home from a road trip in Colorado, that his workload might increase. He said he saw coach Rob Murray and assistant coach Louis Mass huddle soon after they got off the plane.
"I knew someone was getting called up (to the AHL) and it wasn't me,'' he said.
The opener of the three-game series that continues Friday night and wraps Saturday night pitted two teams with somewhat makeshift lineups. The Aces (26-10-3) are thin because of call-ups and injuries. The Steelheads (20-16-4) are thin because they have a slew of players up in the AHL.
Idaho generated enough offense to win, but Coleman proved stingy. And the Steelheads were hit with two minor penalties in the last three minutes, crippling their chances of forcing overtime.
Alaska earned a 1-0 lead late in the first period, when winger Jordan Kremyr, in his first game back from AHL Abbotsford, polished off a 2-on-1 feed from Eli Zuck.
By then, Idaho starting goaltender Brad Phillips was long gone. He stopped all 11 shots he faced in less than eight minutes, but was injured twisting back into his crease in an attempt to stop an apparent Aces goal. That marker was immediately waved off by referee Nic Leduc, who ruled the Aces directed the puck into the net with a hand.
Josh Watson furnished tremendous relief, stopping 31 of 33 shots on a night the Aces outshot the Steelheads, 44-25.
Mele pumped the Aces' lead to 2-0 when he shoveled home a Mathew Sisca feed at 2:19 of the second period.
The crowd was still buzzing when Grant delivered a buzz-kill - he scored off a feed from Brett Robinson, who has 10 assists in nine games against Alaska this season. Also assisting on the goal was Idaho rookie winger William Rapuzzi of Anchorage.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Idaho 0 0 1 -- 1
Aces 1 0 1 -- 2
First Period -- 1, Aces, Kremyr 10 (Zuck), 17:14. Penalties -- Dodero, Idaho (hooking), 8:35; Kremyr, Aces, major (fighting), 11:15; Reum, Idaho, major (fighting), 11:15; Mazzolini, Aces (hooking), 17:22.
Second Period -- None. Penalties -- Grant, Idaho (roughing), 9:19; Connolly, Aces (slashing), 16:27; Dodero, Idaho (unsportsmanlike conduct), 16:27.
Third Period -- 2, Aces, Mele 9 (Sisca, Skelly), 2:19; 3, Idaho, Grant 13 (Robinson, Rapuzzi), 2:47. Penalties -- McKelvie, Aces (roughing), 2:58; Robinson, Idaho, double-minor, served by Conboy (slashing, roughing), 2:58; de Kastrozza, Idaho (high-sticking), 3:42; Walters, Idaho (interference), 17:10; Wahl, Idaho, minor-misconduct, served by Walters (tripping), 19:20.
Shots on goal -- Idaho 8-9-8--25. Aces 18-14-12--44.
Power-play Opportunities -- Idaho 0 of 1. Aces 0 of 6.
Goalies -- Idaho, Phillips (11 shots-11 saves); Watson, enter 7:29 1st period (33-31). Aces, Coleman, 3-0-1 (25-24).
A -- 3,756 (6,399). T -- 2:35.
Referee -- Nic Leduc. Linesmen -- Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.