Sometimes, there’s just no beating a first-rate performance from a first line.
That combination did the trick for the Alaska Aces on Friday night, when center Nick Mazzolini and wingers Peter Sivak and Brendan Connolly accounted for all the goals and 10 points in a 4-2 victory over the Stockton Thunder to open the ECHL’s Hockey Heritage Weekend.
Playing before an announced crowd of 4,925 at Sullivan Arena — the prospect of a crowd of 6,000 or better for Saturday’s rematch looks strong — the Mazzolini line also went a combined plus-9 and unlimbered 13 shots on goal.
“When they’re playing well, they’re a tough line to contain,’’ said Aces coach Rob Murray.
The Mazzolini line owns more than 1,200 pro games combined, with Sivak, the 31-year Slovak approaching the 700-game mark. Mix talent with that experience and it makes an explosive package.
“We play, every game, better and better,’’ Sivak said. “We have good experience, and with our plays on the ice, and with (the) power play, it makes it easier for us.’’
Sivak scored into an empty net for his team-leading 15th goal and his fourth point of the night — he assisted on Connolly’s two strikes and Mazzolini’s goal. That production marked the fourth time Sivak has scored four or more points in a game this season and pushed his season totals in 38 games to 15 goals, 35 assists and 50 points, tied for second on the circuit in scoring.
Mazzolini’s 14-24—38 totals in 42 games tie him for 10th in the league in points. And Connolly, who missed eight games in December and January after taking a stick to the face, owns 12-21—32 totals in 31 games.
Friday’s game was the first of five straight the teams will play at Sullivan in a span of seven days. That glut on the schedule was prompted when the San Francisco Bulls folded recently and the schedule had to be revamped.
As part of Hockey Heritage Weekend, the NHL’s Stanley Cup was in the house — 2012 Iditarod winner Dallas Seavey, with the Cup nestled in his sled, mushed onto the ice to deliver the game puck — and so were many other displays from the Hockey Hall of Fame. The ECHL’s 2014 Hall of Fame Class, which included former Aces winger Wes Goldie and was honored at a luncheon Friday, was also honored during the first intermission.
As a nod to their NHL affiliates, the Aces (28-11-3) wore the colors of the Calgary Flames and the Thunder (22-17-5) dressed in the colors of the New York Islanders.
After Stockton’s J.P. Burkemper slammed home an Alex MacLeod rebound seven minutes into the game to open the scoring, Alaska’s top line answered 23 seconds later. That’s the quickest the Aces have responded to an opponent opening the scoring this season.
Mazzolini took a pass from Sivak, skating down the right wing, waited for Stockton defenseman Landon Oslanski to slide past him and centered to Connolly for a tap-in on the doorstep of Stockton goaltender Brian Foster (33 saves).
Later in the first period, Connolly used a defenseman as a screen and scored on a power-play, half-slapper from atop the right circle for a 2-1 Aces lead. In the second period, Connolly took a deft feed from Sivak near the goal line on left wing and centered a pass into Mazzolini’s wheelhouse in the slot. Mazzolini’s cannonading one-timer, high to the glove side, gave Foster no chance.
“We’re starting to read off each other and anticipate what each other is going to do,’’ Connolly said.
Murray said he appreciates that the Mazzolini line is not simply counting on its skill.
“I’ve liked the way they’re practicing together,’’ he said. “They’re not taking shortcuts. They’re working hard.’’
Mazzolini said it took some time for he and his wingers to develop chemistry, and he was thankful for patience from the bench boss.
“Just the fact that Mur stuck with us and let us find ourselves,’’ Mazzolini said. “And now it’s a thing.’’
Stockton, which like Alaska is staring at a daunting schedule in which games are frequent and off days without travel infrequent, didn’t waver down two goals.
Thunder leading scorer Joey Martin, whose shot earlier in the third period struck iron, made good minutes later. Stationed behind the net of Aces goalie Gerald Coleman (20 saves), he backhanded a shot off the back of Coleman’s shoulder and in midway through the period to pull Stockton within a goal at 3-2.
The Aces’ strong forechecking and puck possession late didn’t allow the Thunder to pull Foster for an extra attacker until the last 20 seconds. Still, they managed one threatening flurry before Sivak sealed the victory.
Turned out it wasn’t close to the first time he prospered in red. He played six seasons in his native Slovakia for Trencin Dukla.
“We wore red,’’ he said, pointing to his jersey.
Shuffling the deck
Sivak, who has 12 multiple-point games this season, has delivered 6-14—20 totals in the last 11 games.
Connolly’s three-point game marked his fifth game this season with three or more points.
Mathew Sisca’s assist on Connolly’s power-play goal was the only point registered by an Ace other than Connolly, Mazzolini and Sivak.
Aces defenseman Sean Curry logged his 700th career game as a pro and Connolly’s first goal was his 100th as a pro.
The Aces improved to 17-5-1 at home.
The Aces, with 63 points, sit four points behind Western Conference-leading Ontario, which has played three more games than Alaska. Alaska moved ahead of Ontario in winning percentage, .702 to .700. Eastern Conference-leading South Carolina, with 63 points in 43 games, owns the circuit’s top winning percentage at .733.
Stockton includes a couple of familiar faces from their time with UAA in defenseman Lee Baldwin and forward Mitch Bruijsten.
First Period — 1, Stockton, Burkemper 5 (MacLeod, Constant), 7:16; 2, Aces, Connolly 11 (Mazzolini, Sivak), 7:39; 3, Aces, Connolly 12 (Sisca, Sivak), 18:29 (pp). Penalties — Elson, Aces (delay of game-puck over glass), 8:39; Hunt, Stockton (interference), 17:02.
Second Period — 4, Aces, Mazzolini 14 (Connolly, Sivak), 6:44. Penalties — Davies, Aces (holding), 10:01.
Third Period — 5, Stockton, Martin 12 (Miller, Boutin) 9:38; 6, Aces, Sivak 15 (Mazzolini), 19:49 (en). Penalties — Bruijsten, Stockton (tripping), 11:27 .
Shots on goal — Stockton 8-8-6—22. Aces 14-12-11—37.
Power-play Opportunities — Stockton 0 of 2. Aces 1 of 2.
Goalies — Stockton, Foster, 17-9-4 (36 shots-33 saves). Aces, Coleman, 5-1-1 (22-20).
A — 4,925 (6,399). T — 2:18.
Referee — Ryan Murphy. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.