Though the Idaho Steelheads beat the Alaska Aces 4-2 on Saturday night, that two-goal cushion came courtesy of an empty-net goal in the waning seconds, so the ECHL hockey teams essentially played their seventh consecutive game decided by one goal.
In those circumstances, the margin of error is as thin as a skate blade, and the difference can be something as simple as opportunity lost at one end and exploited at the other.
So it was inside Sullivan Arena, where an announced crowd of 5,253 witnessed a back-and-forth game replete with momentum swings and lead changes — there were three of the latter.
Consider, for instance, a sequence of just 14 seconds in the opening minutes of the third period, when the game was tied 2-2 and the Aces believed they had scored the go-ahead goal. But referee Nic Leduc waved off the play. Off the ensuing face-off, Idaho gained the Alaska zone, Rob Linsmayer threw a sharply angled shot on Aces goaltender Gerald Coleman (25 saves) from the right-wing boards and rookie forward Johnny McGuire banged in the rebound to give the visitors a 3-2 lead in the finale of a three-game series.
The goal was the first of McGuire’s pro career and came on a night when he hurt his right ankle in a first-period collision and occasionally tweaked it throughout the game.
“We had another guy (Andrew Conboy) go down and (McGuire) looked back at me and said, ‘I’ll give you what I have,’ ” said Idaho coach Brad Ralph. “He scored on the next shift.’’
McGuire, who began his season in the American Hockey League before being assigned to the Steelheads, said the manner in which he scored tracked closely to Idaho’s intentions.
“I was just standing on the doorstep,’’ he said. “Our play was to get the puck to the net and go for rebounds. I think (Linsmayer) shot it off the pads looking to create a rebound.’’
Coleman said he glimpsed McGuire unchecked near his crease and anticipated Linsmayer centering the puck to the rookie, so he leaned forward, thinking he could poke-check the pass. Coleman said he was leaning forward and couldn’t control his rebound like he would have preferred.
“It caught me in an awkward position,’’ Coleman said.
The Mountain Division-leading Aces (27-11-3), who sit second in the Western Conference, had both their three-game winning streak and seven-game, home-ice point streak (6-0-1) snapped. They won the first two games of the series, 2-1 on Wednesday and 3-2 in a shootout Friday.
“We weren’t as energetic tonight as we have been,’’ said Aces coach Rob Murray. “(Idaho) played a good game. They were desperate, playing with urgency.
“At times, I don’t think we matched it. It could have gone either way.’’
Both teams are missing pivotal players, whether the reason is injuries or promotions to the AHL.
The Steelheads (21-16-5) killed their three-game winless skid (0-2-1) and left the series with three of a possible six points, no small feat against an Aces team that is 16-5-1 at Sullivan.
“I thought we played well all weekend,’’ Ralph said. “Obviously, coming in here we were really depleted. I thought, to a man, we played hard.
“They brought it for 60 minutes tonight.’’
Idaho got off to a strong start and opened the scoring less than five minutes into the game when defenseman Damon Kipp, given ample time and space, beat Coleman with a 50-foot slapper from the center point. Coleman said the puck knuckled on him, which prevented him from making a glove save.
Alaska answered less than three minutes later. Captain Nick Mazzolini, stationed behind Idaho’s net, played the puck between Kipp’s skates and back-handed a pass that Peter Sivak buried for his team-high 14th goal and a 1-1 tie.
The Aces gained their only lead late in the first period, when Mazzolini’s power-play pass from the right boards preceded Brendan Connolly’s backhander off Steelheads goalie Pat Nagle (33 saves) and into the net for a 2-1 edge.
Idaho generated the equalizer deep into the second period when former UAA winger Tommy Grant in neutral ice chipped a pass from Steelheads rookie winger William Rapuzzi of Anchorage into the Alaska zone. Center Brett Robinson collected the puck and, suddenly, he and Grant were in on Coleman 2 on 0. Grant converted Robinson’s pass for a goal that gave Idaho a 2-2 tie and marked Grant’s third goal in the series.
After McGuire’s go-ahead goal, the Aces couldn’t crack Nagle again and Linsmayer wrapped things up with an empty-net goal with 20.5 seconds left.
“That’s a skilled team, very opportunistic,’’ Coleman said. “Like (Murray) said, you let them hang around and they’ll burn you.’’
Shuffling the deck
Sivak’s goal and assist give him 5-11—16 totals in the last 10 games. He has points in eight of those games, and his 14-32—46 totals in 37 games tie him for second on the circuit in points.
Mazzolini’s two helpers give him 3-8—11 totals in the last nine games. He has points in eight of those games. Mazzolini has 3-8—11 totals in 11 games against Idaho.
Idaho’s Robinson owns 2-12—14 totals in 11 games against the Aces. Grant has 6-4—10 totals in 11 games against Alaska and Rapuzzi is 1-5—6 in eight games against the Aces.
Coleman’s loss was his first in regulation — he’s 4-1-1 — and snapped his four-game winning streak and five-game streak without a regulation loss since coming back from offseason hip surgery. He said playing on consecutive nights for the first time this season, and playing three games in four nights, was encouraging.
“It’s a confidence-booster to know I can maintain a level through three games in four nights,’’ he said.
Aces rookie defenseman Ben Parker sat out with an upper-body injury, and Murray went with 11 forwards and five defensemen instead of the usual complement of 10 and six.
Through 41 games, 13 different Aces players have missed a combined 191 games to injuries.
Center Jordan Morrison, signed Friday, made his Aces debut. The former San Francisco Bull — that team folded Monday — had one shot on goal.
Sivak and Jordan Kremyr led the Aces in shots with five each. Idaho’s Linsmayer (one goal, two helpers) led his team with five shots and was plus-3.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog.
First Period — 1, Idaho, Kipp 1 (Linsmayer, DeLisle), 4:29; 2, Aces, Sivak 14 (Mazzolini, Davies), 7:27. Penalties — Elbrecht, Idaho (interference), 14:23; Walters, Idaho (tripping), 16:36.
Second Period — 4, Idaho, Grant 15 (Robinson, Rapuzzi), 13:39. Penalties -- None.
Third Period — 5, Idaho, McGuire 1 (Linsmayer, Patterson), 3:10; 6, Idaho, Linsmayer 6 (Robinson, Cullity), 19:39 (en). Penalties — Linsmayer, Idaho (slashing), 8:08; Cullity, Idaho (interference), 13:38; Connolly, Aces (hooking), 14:44.
Shots on goal — Idaho 11-11-7—29. Aces 14-9-12—35.
Power-play Opportunities — Idaho 0 of 1. Aces 1 of 4.
Goalies — Idaho, Nagle, 12-10-3 (35 shots-33 saves). Aces, Coleman, 4-1-1 (28-25).
A — 5,253 (6,399). T — 2:29.
Referee — Nic Leduc. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.