For two hockey seasons now, the Alaska Aces' identity has been forged in the defensive zone -- they yield minimal scoring chances, and what few they do are usually snuffed by goaltender Gerald Coleman.
But the Aces fell completely out of character Saturday night in Game 2 of the ECHL Western Conference semifinals, surrendering glorious opportunity after glorious opportunity.
And that left them glumly exiting the ice after the Stockton Thunder generated a come-from-behind, 3-2 overtime win to even the best-of-7 series at one game apiece entering tonight's Game 3 in California.
The Aces yielded no fewer than three breakaways, at least that many odd-man rushes and, by their standards, an abundance of high-quality scoring chances.
Don't be fooled by Alaska's 40-29 advantage in shots on goal -- the Thunder enjoyed more Grade A chances, particularly in a second period that looked a lot like a game of shinny.
"It got a little run-and-gun, and we gave up way too many solid chances, especially in the second period,'' said Aces captain Brian Swanson. "Colesy came up big for us four, five, six times.
"Our style is to play well defensively and get our (offensive) chances off that, and that got away from us Saturday night.''
Coleman has spent the last two seasons playing behind a club that surrendered the fewest shots in the league, and that stinginess and his excellence accounted for the Aces giving up the fewest goals in the league both seasons.
As he played Saturday, Coleman recognized defensive diligence had taken a holiday. He likened it to shinny hockey, where defense is an afterthought, and said the only reason the teams were tied 2-2 heading to overtime was he and Stockton goalie Olivier Roy were sharp.
"It felt like summer hockey,'' Coleman said. "A buddy of mine watched part of the game and he said, 'You're not that good in the summer.' I said, 'I don't have to be.' There were 2-on-1s, breakaways, back-door plays.
"It should have been 7-7.''
The way the Aces saw it, Coleman was the reason they were able to get to extra time, even though they botched a 2-0 second-period lead.
"Without a doubt, he was there for us,'' said Aces coach Rob Murray.
Chris D'Alvise's game-winning goal, a power-play roof job over Coleman's glove off the rush, required a perfect shot.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time in his league, no one is going to pick a corner like that,'' Coleman said. "But he's a good player, and he played well in the (American Hockey League), and he's going to do that.''
While the Aces are figuring out how to get back to the defensive hockey that sustains them, they are also pondering ways to crack Roy, who stopped 38 shots Saturday and has racked a .941 save percentage in winning four of five playoff games.
Getting something going on the power play -- the Aces have failed to score on 26 straight chances dating back to the regular season -- would obviously help. The Aces say they also need to get more bodies in front of Roy, and get the puck to the net more.
"When you run into a hot goalie, it becomes frustrating,'' said Aces winger Dan Kissel. "You have to stay disciplined, and we've done that. We have to get in front of his eyes. That's just getting to the net and getting gritty goals.''
The leaping save Coleman made on Jordan Fulton's breakaway with his left skate blade Saturday night -- let's agree to refer to that save of the season as The Ninja Save -- was the most desperate of stops, Coleman said.
After the puck left Alaska's zone less than five minutes into the period , Coleman went behind his net to retrieve his stick -- he had lost it in a goal-mouth collision -- when he suddenly heard an ominous rise in tone from the announced crowd of 5,561 at Sullivan Arena.
"I thought, 'Something not good is going on,' " Coleman said.
As he turned back toward his net after bending down to grab his stick, Coleman said he looked through the back of his net "and I just saw a guy coming at the blue line.''
Coleman hustled past the left post, leaped skates-first across his crease and got the steel of his left skate blade on Fulton's 40-foot wrister, which was headed into the middle of an open net. The 6-foot-5 Coleman said he went skates-first because his skates were ahead of his body as he tried to avoid running into the side of the cage.
"I honestly blacked out, like, 'I have to do something,' " Coleman said. "Once again, sometimes it's good to be 6-5.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Alaska Aces at Stockton Thunder
Best-of-7 (Series tied 1-1)
WHAT: ECHL Western Conference Semifinals, Game 3
WHEN: Wednesday, Stockton Arena, 6 p.m. ADT
TV: Live, GCI cable Channel 1
RADIO: LIVE AM-750 KFQDBLOG: Woody on Hockey
By DOYLE WOODY
Anchorage Daily News