The Alaska Aces were protecting a two-goal lead inside Sullivan Arena with five minutes remaining Saturday night in their eventual 5-2 victory when the Stockton Thunder attacked goaltender Gerald Coleman on an odd-man rush.
The puck ended up on Joey Martin’s stick blade between the face-off circles. The left-handed shooter snapped a wrist shot — his bid was neither a howitzer nor a softy, what goalies call a muffin, but it carried some juice. Coleman, at the top of his crease, flashed his left hand, almost casually it appeared, and snatched the puck in his catching glove to get a stop in play.
In that moment, Coleman channeled 2011, when he backstopped the Aces to the franchise’s second Kelly Cup and was voted the ECHL’s Goaltender of the Year.
For the first time since he returned from offseason hip surgery a month ago, he looked like the Gerald Coleman of old rather than an older Gerald Coleman.
Didn’t hurt, of course, that he made 40 saves Saturday, when the Aces, who entered permitting opponents’ a league-low 24.76 shots per game, surrendered a season-high 42. Or that when Stockton, trailing 3-1, unloaded the first 12 shots of the second period, he didn’t allow the Thunder a sniff, and continually froze the puck for whistles to help his teammates regroup.
“A lot of it is just playing,’’ Coleman said after his sixth consecutive start. “You kind of get in a groove just playing, so you turn your brain off — because you know you’re going to be playing every game until we get another goaltender.’’
With Olivier Roy up with the Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League — he bagged his third win in three starts Saturday — Coleman is the only goalie the Aces have under contract. He helped furnish Alaska’s 4-2 win over Stockton on Friday and will get the start in Sunday’s matinee with the Thunder in what will mark the first time this season he has played three games in three days.
Coleman, 28, said his work with Eric Steenburgh at Rebound Physical Therapy, Aces trainer Tyson Salley and Aces assistant coach Louis Mass, who owns a local gym, has left him feeling fit and strong. Coleman said mornings can still be rough, and he loosens up for two hours before a game, but is finally feeling flexible. That, and strength, have given him the confidence to edge out to the top of his crease and use his 6-foot-5 frame to cut down shooters’ angles because he believes he is now capable of pushing a skate to quickly retreat into the crease if necessary.
“My hips are finally starting to loosen up consistently,’’ Coleman said. “I’m getting more comfortable in my hips, that I can push back.’’
Saturday’s game, the second in a five-game series between the clubs that extends through Thursday, started with a bang — more precisely, the bang came before the game started.
The teams had not even truly begun warm-ups when Aces defenseman Dustin Molle and Thunder captain Garet Hunt fought. Soon, Aces defenseman Sean Curry and Thunder forward Mathieu-Coderre Gagnon also fought. All of this, mind you, during the ECHL’s Hockey Heritage Weekend, when commissioner Brian McKenna and vice president of hockey operations Joe Ernst, who oversees officials and is the circuit’s discipline czar, were present.
On-ice officials are not present during warm-ups in the ECHL. The teams policed themselves to a degree, which kept matters from deteriorating into what hockey players call a Gong Show, and warm-ups continued without any further hurt feelings.
Ernst said Molle and Hunt were suspended immediately and indefinitely, pending review.
The evening before an announced crowd of 5,857 also included a tribute to former Aces sniper Wes Goldie, part of that 2011 championship team and the league’s all-time leading goal scorer. He was one of four new inductees into the league’s Hall of Fame on Friday and Saturday the Aces retired his No. 16 and hung it from the rafters.
After Stockton opened the scoring as it did Friday — this time, defenseman Sean Escobedo did the honors — the Aces reeled off first-period goals from Peter Sivak, captain Nick Mazzolini and Jordan Morrison, who furnished his first marker since joining the club after the San Francisco Bulls folded last month.
Defenseman Zach Davies, who assisted on the goals from Mazzolini and Morrison, pushed Alaska’s advantage to 4-1 with his second-period, power-play goal off an Evan Trupp helper.
Stockton, a punishing physical team that for the first two games of the series has delivered clean, throttling hits with regularity, pulled within 4-2 on Nick Larson’s power-play deflection with more than eight minutes to go.
But with Stockton goalie Parker Milner (30 saves) on the bench in favor of an extra attacker, Ross Ring-Jarvi’s empty-net goal cemented the Aces’ win with 75 seconds left.
Still, on a night when Aces scoring was abundant and the franchise and its Cowbell Crew of fans honored a goal scorer, it was the goaltender Coleman who shared the spotlight.
“He’s back,’’ Mazzolini. “It’s a huge lift to the team and to our confidence — in the offensive zone, we can take a few more chances with him back there.
“Tonight was definitely Colesy’s coming-out party.’’
Shuffling the deck
Sivak’s goal and assist gives him 22 points in the last 12 games and pushed him into solo second place in the league scoring race with 16-36—52 totals in 39 games.
The Aces improved to 18-5-1 on home ice.
With 61 points in 43 games, the Aces pulled to within two points of Western Conference-leading Ontario, which owns 63 points in 46 games.
Stockton 1 0 1 — 2
Aces 3 1 1 — 5
First Period — 1, Stockton, Escobedo 2 (Henry), 1:09; 2, Aces, Sivak 16, 6:42; 3, Aces, Mazzolini 15 (Sivak, Davies), 9:44 (pp); 4, Aces, Morrison 12 (Elson, Davies), 13:04. Penalties — Baldwin, Stockton (hooking), 9:08; Constant, Stockton (interference), 9:18; Parker, Aces (hooking), 14:25; Ring-Jarvi, Aces (hooking), 16:46.
Second Period — 5, Aces, Davies 6 (Trupp, Findlay), 15:09 (pp). Penalties — Pedan, Stockton (tripping), 8:53; Larson, Stockton, double-minor (high-sticking), 12:09.
Third Period — 6, Stockton, Larson 2 (Oslanski, Henry), 11:30 (pp); 7, Aces, Ring-Jarvi 9 (Kremyr), 18:45 (en). Penalties — Boutin, Stockton (slashing), 6:08; Mazzolini, Aces (tripping), 9:35; McKelvie, Aces (slashing), 19:24.
Shots on goal — Stockton 11-16-15—42. Aces 16-11-8—35.
Power-play Opportunities — Stockton 1 of 4. Aces 2 of 6.
Goalies — Stockton, Milner, 4-8-0 (34 shots-30 saves). Aces, Coleman, 6-1-1 (42-40).
A — 5,857 (6,399). T — 2:28.
Referee — Ryan Murphy. Linesmen — Scott Sivulich, Steve Glines.