Adam Courchaine regained his groove.
Alex Stalock proved even groovier.
In a goaltending duel between guys under contract to NHL teams, Stockton's Stalock was just the tiniest bit better than Alaska's Courchaine, and he backstopped the Thunder to a 2-1 ECHL victory Sunday that earned them a three-game sweep of the visiting Aces.
The league-leading Aces (31-9-5) have lost three consecutive games in regulation for just the second time this hockey season and the first time in three months.
That the Aces lost again at Stockton Arena was not Courchaine's responsibility. Sometimes, it's no one's fault -- the masked man at the other end of the ice simply steals a game.
So it was Sunday, when Courchaine, who has struggled early on Alaska's 11-game road trip, was back in the form that has served the Aces so well all season. Courchaine, under contract to the Boston Bruins, stopped 34 shots and gave his club every shot at victory.
But Stalock, the former Minnesota-Duluth first-team All-American who is coming back from a horrific injury, was a wall. The San Jose Sharks draft pick made 38 saves.
Stalock was a stalwart in the American Hockey League the previous two seasons and won his only NHL appearance. But late last season, he suffered a severe cut to the back of his leg when a player stepped on him in an AHL game. He's in the ECHL for the first time to work on his game and work his way back up hockey's ladder. So far, so good -- Stalock is 4-0-0 for the Thunder (21-18-4) and picked up two of that team's three wins over the Aces in the series.
The teams played a spirited, but clean, high-tempo game in a match that turned a spotlight on the wicked scheduling in the ECHL, which is two rungs below the NHL. Sunday's game was Stockton's eighth in the last 10 nights and Alaska's fourth in five nights amid a run of eight games in 11 nights.
The Aces unloaded 17 shots on Stalock in the first period, but he was unbeatable, making a particularly spectacular save on Aces sniper Wes Goldie.
Stockton seized a 1-0 lead in the final minute of the first period -- the Thunder scored first in all three series wins -- when defenseman Mark Little stopped a clearing attempt by Aces defenseman Kane Lafranchise, who tried to rim the puck around the wall. Milan Kytnar deflected Little's shot from the point past Courchaine.
Winger Dan Kissel forged the equalizer for Alaska late in the second period with his 23rd goal, just two shy of Goldie's team-leading 25. Kissel's strike came off a feed from center Zach Harrison, who has generated 1-5--6 totals during his five-game point streak. Kissel fired a game-high seven shots on goal.
But Kissel's turnover in neutral ice less than four minutes into the third period sprung Jordan Fulton for the game-winning goal. Fulton blew into the Alaska zone and to the net, avoided Courchaine's poke-check and slipped the puck behind him for a 2-1 Stockton lead.
The Aces pulled Courchaine for an extra attacker in the final 54 seconds and largely held the puck in Stockton's zone. But Stalock, who actively plays the puck, gloved it and shot it the length of the ice for an icing with 1.8 seconds left that effectively ended the game.
Shuffling the deck
The Aces, who only have nine forwards, and that's with defenseman Danny Markowitz skating at wing, had to make do without first-line center Nick Mazzolini for half the second period.
After Goldie was hooked down on a 2-on-1 but no penalty was whistled, Mazzolini was issued a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and a misconduct. Presumably, whatever he said to referee T.J. Luxmore was not a term of endearment or praise.
Aces coach Rob Murray juggled his lines for the game, putting Mazzolini between wingers Goldie and Tyler Ruegsegger. Kissel dropped down to play the left side with Harrison at center and Garry Nunn at right wing. And Ethan Cox centered Jordan Kremyr and Markowitz.
Aces defenseman Bryan Miller is tied for the league lead in points by defensemen with 8-25--33 totals in 45 games. He is tied with Colorado's Aaron Schneekloth (12-21--33 in 43 games).
Kissel's 23 goals tie him for third in the league. Goldie, who led the league last season with 46 goals, is second with 25. The league leader is Las Vegas' Eric Lampe with 34.
Aces captain Brian Swanson missed his eighth straight game with an upper-body injury and winger Matt Ambroz missed his 10th straight with an upper-body injury. Both players accompanied the Aces on the road trip.
Interesting note about Stalock -- in his three seasons at Minnesota-Duluth, he was just 1-5-2 in eight starts against UAA.
Alaska next plays Tuesday night at Ontario before a three-game-in-three nights series at Las Vegas.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces 0 1 0 -- 1
Stockton 1 0 1 -- 2
First Period -- 1, Stockton, Kytnar 7 (Little), 19:34. Penalties -- Fulton, Stockton (boarding), 8:20.
Second Period -- 2, Aces, Kissel 23 (Harrison, Anderson), 15:27. Penalties -- Mazzolini, Aces, served by Markowitz, minor-misconduct (unsportsmanlike conduct), 4:02; Doyle, Stockton (hooking), 19:37.
Third Period -- 3, Stockton, Fulton 8, 3:53. Penalties -- None.
Shots on goal -- Aces 17-10-12--39. Stockton 13-11-12--36.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 0 of 2. Stockton 0 of 1.
Goalies -- Aces, Courchaine, 14-5-3 (36 shots-34 saves). Stockton, Stalock, 4-0-0 (39-38).
A -- 4,706 (9,737). T -- 2:21.
Referee -- T.J. Luxmore. Linesmen -- Steven Berry, Steven Walsh.Blog: Woody on Hockey
By DOYLE WOODY
Anchorage Daily News