Thirty-eight minutes before the horn blared on their 3-2 win over the Bakersfield Condors in California on Wednesday night, the league-leading Alaska Aces technically were crowned the ECHL's Western Conference champions.
The time was 8:41 PDT, and the Aces were resting in the visitors' dressing room inside Rabobank Arena during the second intermission.
That's when the Colorado Eagles wrapped their come-from- behind 3-1 win over the visiting Ontario Reign, which eliminated the Reign from conference-crown consideration and assured the Aces (43-17-10) a first-round playoff bye for the second straight season.
Colorado's second straight win over the Reign also eliminated Ontario from the chase for the Brabham Cup as regular-season champions of the 20-team, minor-league hockey circuit. And then the Aces' victory eliminated the Elmira Jackals from the Brabham hunt.
Now the only contenders for the Brabham are the Aces (96 points) and the Gwinnett Gladiators (93 points) -- both teams have two games remaining in the 72-game regular season -- and the Aces' magic number is one. That means any combination of the Aces winning a point or the Gladiators losing a point will earn the Aces the Brabham for the second straight season. Alaska already owns the tie-breaker -- non-shootout wins -- over Gwinnett.
The Brabham is coveted not only for bragging rights, but because it affords the winner home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
Last season, the Aces won the Mountain Division, Western Conference and Brabham Cup. And they used their first-round bye and Brabham advantage well. They rested up, swept Idaho in the conference semifinals, swept Victoria in the conference finals and beat Kalamazoo, 4-1, in the Kelly Cup Finals.
Wednesday night, the Aces savored another stellar effort from rookie goaltender James Reid, who stopped 26 shots to improve to 6-1-1 since joining the club. Reid owns a goals-against average of 1.61 and a save percentage of .930, which makes him a nifty back-up to Gerald Coleman, the reigning ECHL Goaltender of the Year.
While Bakersfield jumped to a 1-0 lead on Robby Dee's strike 88 seconds into the second period, Aces rookie winger Matt Ambroz, a healthy scratch the three previous games, answered 39 seconds later. Ambroz banged in his own rebound.
Nick Mazzolini delivered the Aces a 2-1 lead 11 minutes later when he scored short-handed. And Blair Yaworski wired a wrister past Condors goalie Matt Keetley (31 saves) midway through the third period for a 3-1 lead that gave Alaska a cushion it needed when Bakersfield's Tyler Helfrich scored an extra-attacker goal with 25.5 seconds left in the game.
The Aces went 5-0-0 at Rabobank this season, and every game was tight -- they won four times by one goal, including two in overtime, and once 2-0. Alaska went 9-2-0 against Bakersfield, which is the only Western Conference team that did not qualify for the playoffs.
Alaska has two regular-season games remaining, Friday and Saturday nights at Ontario. Gwinnett plays both those nights at Florida, where it won 2-0 on Wednesday.
As conference champs, the Aces in the second round of the playoffs will meet the winner of a first-round, best-of-5 series between the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds.
Colorado is locked into the No. 4 seed. The No. 5 seed will be either the Stockton Thunder or the Utah Grizzlies -- Stockton has 73 points and Utah 70, and both have two games left. Stockton plays Friday and Saturday at Idaho, and Utah plays those nights at Bakersfield.
For the Aces, though, consideration of its second-round opponent in a best-of-7 series is not an immediate concern -- the earliest the second round will start, according to the ECHL, is April 11.
What's paramount for the Aces is securing one more point -- or having Gwinnett lose one more point.
Either scenario would suffice for the Aces, who have twice won the Brabham, in 2011 and 2006. That worked out nicely for them both times -- they finished those seasons holding the Kelly Cup.
Shuffling the deck
The playoff bye can only help Aces veteran defenseman Steve Ward, who sat out for the eighth time in the last nine games since suffering a concussion.
Ditto for second-year center Chris Langkow sat out for the second time in the last five games. He missed several months with a early-season concussion suffered in the American Hockey League.
The Aces, who enjoyed one power play Wednesday, gave Bakersfield three man-advantages, marking the 14th consecutive game the Aces have permitted an opponent four or fewer power-play opportunities.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces 0 2 1 -- 3
Bakersfield 0 1 1 -- 2
First Period -- None. Penalties -- T. Gimblett, Bakersfield (boarding), 14:42.
Second Period -- 1, Bakersfield, Dee 24 (Boyd), 1:28; 2, Aces, Ambroz 3 (Harrison, Miller), 2:07; 3, Aces, Mazzolini 21, 13:09 (sh). Penalties -- Dee, Bakersfield (delay of game-puck over glass), 2:58; Cruthers, Aces (slashing), 2:58; Gentile, Aces (delay of game-puck over glass), 5:15; Mazzolini, Aces (delay of game-puck over glass), 6:31; J. Gimblett, Bakersfield, major (fighting), 14:29; Ambroz, Aces, major (fighting), 14:29.
Third Period -- 4, Aces, Yaworski 10 (Mazzolini, Anderson), 9:00; 5, Bakersfield, Helfrich 18 (Annesley), 19:34 (ea). Penalties -- None.
Shots on goal -- Aces 10-15-9--34. Bakersfield 8-11-9--28.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 0 of 1. Bakersfield 0 of 3.
Goalies -- Aces, Reid, 6-1-1 (28 shots-26 saves). Bakersfield, Keetley, 12-20-3 (34-31).
A -- 3,372 (9,000). T -- 2:06
Referee -- Nic Leduc. Linesmen -- Brett Martin, Steven Walsh.Blog: Woody on Hockey
By DOYLE WOODY
Anchorage Daily News