Long road trip for Aces starts in Bakersfield

Doyle Woody

By the time the Alaska Aces return from this never-ending road trip, captain Brian Swanson's oldest child, fifth-grader Addison, will have her driver's license.

Defenseman Chad Anderson's infant son, Ethan, will be gearing up for mite hockey.

OK, granted, that's applying the hockey hyperbole a little heavy-handed, but the ECHL leaders tonight play the first game on an 11-game, 20-day grind that matches them against five opponents in three states.

That's three weeks of hotel beds, restaurant meals, bus rides, plane flights, living out of a suitcase and games, games, games -- the trip starts with a deluge of eight games in 11 nights, beginning with tonight's match against the Bakersfield Condors in California.

Even the team's itinerary -- three pages long -- looks daunting.

Thus, the soon-to-be weary need to rest when they get even the slightest opportunity.

"Whenever you get a chance, you just want to take it easy and not exert yourself,'' said veteran winger Wes Goldie. "You try to stay off your feet because we have a lot of work ahead of us.

"Eat well, stay hydrated, rest, sleep. It's basically common sense.''

Aces coach Rob Murray said the team planned its travel between locations for daylight hours so the players can get something approaching a regular night's sleep and also have a meal after games.

"Hopefully, it helps,'' Murray said. "The guys will get better sleep in a bed, instead of being on a bus and arriving in a place at whatever a.m., and they'll get an actual meal after a game to replenish instead of eating pizza or something.''

Among the 11 games on the trip are two instances in which the Aces play three games in three nights.

Those compacted stretches could be most difficult for goaltender Adam Courchaine. With reigning ECHL Goaltender of the Year Gerald Coleman up in the American Hockey League, Courchaine has made five straight starts. Coleman was injured for a stretch a few weeks ago, so between his AHL gig and that injury, Courchaine has started 11 of the last 13 games.

The initial plan is for Courchaine, who leads the league in both goals-against average (1.75) and save percentage (.931), to make all the starts on this trip. He said he intends to eat well, make sure he's in bed before midnight and monitor his energy levels to determine when he will take part in game-day skates.

The Aces last weekend signed goalie Drew O'Connell of Anchorage to a standard contract and took him on the trip. While Murray said he doesn't have plans to give O'Connell a start, having him around will take some load off Courchaine in the odd practices the Aces conduct, and in game-day skates.

Plus, Murray won't have to worry about tracking down an emergency back-up goaltender -- known as an E-Bug on the circuit -- for each game. He said O'Connell, who played four seasons at Colorado College, is a huge upgrade over an E-Bug

"We've been impressed in practice with his ability,'' Murray said. "He's not just a beer-league guy. He's a guy who can actually play.''

O'Connell, 25, works as a commercial real estate appraiser and got time off from work to make the trip. He said his bosses, Brian Bethard and Steve Carlson, are hockey players and encouraged him to go for it.

"Those guys play hockey and they recognize what a unique opportunity it is,'' O'Connell said. "(Bethard) said, 'You're only young once.' ''

The Aces open this road trip with a lineup thinned by injuries and players loaned to AHL teams. While first-line center Swanson and Matt Ambroz, who have missed four games and six games, respectively, made the trip, they are not expected in the lineup tonight. That will leave the Aces with 15 skaters, one shy of the ECHL maximum, and likely includes defenseman Danny Markowitz playing wing.

Still, the Aces have good memories of their last extended trip, an eight-game, 18-day journey in November and December in which they went 6-0-2.

"The way we approached the last long road trip is one game at a time,'' Murray said. "It's a cliche, but our focus was on winning or getting a point from every game.

"That was our mission, and we were able to do it. That's the approach we'll take on this trip.''

Shuffling the deck

The Aces (30-6-5) have a league-leading 65 points through 41 games, which in the league's overall standings puts them 11 points ahead of Las Vegas (25-13-4), which has played 42 games; 12 points ahead of Elmira (26-12-1), which has played 39 games; and 15 points on top of South Carolina (24-16-2) and Gwinnett (20-12-10), both of which have played 42 games.

Elmira is a shootout phenomenon -- the Jackals are 8-0 in the skills contest, where they have converted a remarkable 19 of 32 attempts (.594 success). The next best mark in the league is that of Idaho, which is 5-1 in shootouts and 10 of 25 in its attempts (.400).

Elmira's Mike Radja has scored on seven of eight shootout bids and Jack Downing has scored on five of seven. Plus, Jackals goalie Brian Stewart has permitted just four goals on opponents' 28 attempts, and all Jackals goalies have surrendered just four goals on 33 attempts.

Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.

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