In pushing the Stockton Thunder to the cliff's edge of elimination with two straight road wins -- the second one a come-from-behind, 4-2 shove to the precipice Friday night -- the Alaska Aces have proved particularly dominating and lethal in the last two periods.
In the combined second and third periods Friday and in Wednesday's 4-0 victory, the Aces have outscored the Thunder 7-1 and outshot them 51-18.
And that has the defending Kelly Cup champions one victory away from taking the best-of-7, ECHL Western Conference semifinal series. They lead 3-1 entering Game 5 Saturday night at Stockton Arena.
Friday, after goaltender Gerald Coleman (19 saves) kept them in reasonable position through one period -- Stockton led 1-0 after 20 minutes, courtesy of Chris D'Alvise's goal off a turnover -- the Aces rallied for two second-period goals and two third-period strikes.
Still, they didn't lead until defenseman Steve Ward's power-play goal with less than six minutes to go. Nick Mazzolini, who supplied a jaw-dropping assist on Ryan Cruthers' game-tying goal late in the second period, sealed victory with an empty-netter.
The Aces say Friday's first period was a case of the Thunder rising to the challenge in front of their home fans, and the final two periods were the Aces delivering a retort.
"They came out flying, and we had to push back,'' Mazzolini said by cellphone from California. "So we got kind of got a little pissed off, regained our wits and gained control.''
Cruthers said the Aces recognized they played a lethargic first period and knew they needed to be better to keep Stockton from tying the series.
"That's just us coming in (to the dressing room) after the first period and not being satisfied, looking in the mirror and realizing we need to raise our game,'' Cruthers said.
Defenseman Tyson Marsh's bouncing, knuckling shot from the left point eluded Stockton rookie goalie Olivier Roy (26 saves) 78 seconds into the second period for a 1-1 tie. But Stockton regained the lead at 2-1 on Gabriel Levesque's power-play rebound goal seven minutes into the period.
That margin held until Mazzolini made a slick pass late in the second period to generate the Cruthers tap-in that delivered a 2-2 tie and furnished a tangible finish to a play those two and linemate Garry Nunn have been working on after practices.
Mazzolini kicked the puck onto his stick behind the goal line on left wing and began circling the net, as if to go for a wraparound attempt at the right post. As Roy anticipated the wraparound, moved right-to-left across his crease and turned his head to the left to track Mazzolini, Mazzolini instead curled a pass forehand pass just outside the left post Roy had just vacated. Cruthers shot into an open net for his second goal in two games.
"I kind of like that move,'' Mazzolini said. "It's been in my repertoire for a while. Me and my linemates talk about it and work on it, so they know I'm going to play it that way.''
The 2-2 tie held until the Aces went on their second power play of the third period after Stockton defenseman Mike Little was penalized for tripping Nunn.
On the power play, Thunder penalty killers did a fantastic job of holding the puck in a scrum along the right-wing wall for what seemed like an eternity.
"I was on the bench thinking, 'Let's get the puck out and get just one good look at the net,' '' said Aces coach Rob Murray.
Winger Dan Kissel (two assists) finally freed the puck and got it to Bryan Miller at the right point. The defenseman, enjoying loads of space, walked the puck laterally to the middle of the ice and unloaded a slapper that went wide left of the net.
The puck ricocheted hard off the end wall and to Ward, who had sneaked into the left circle. The puck jammed Ward but he was able to one-time behind Roy, who had pushed to the top of his crease to cut Miller's shooting angle.
"Once he started walking, that's kind of my cue to look for something on the back door,'' Ward said. "Luckily, he missed the net and it came right out to me.''
Stockton's hopes of tying it up took a severe hit when Jordan Fulton was whistled for boarding Aces defenseman Kane Lafranchise with less than four minutes to go.
The Thunder pulled Roy for a sixth attacker in the final 78 seconds, but Mazzolini skated the puck into the empty Stockton net with three seconds to go.
That pushed the Thunder to the brink of elimination and left the Aces eager to end the series Saturday night.
"They're at home and they feed off the crowd,'' Cruthers said. "No matter how prepared you are, you've got to weather the storm. But we have to do a better job of matching their intensity in the first period.''
Shuffling the deck
Mazzolini (team-high three goals), Cruthers (2) and Nunn (1) have combined for six of the Aces' 12 goals in the series. Mazzolini leads the Aces in points with 3-2--5 totals in four games, Cruthers checks in at 2-1--3 and Nunn at 1-2--3.
The Aces have scored power-play goals in back-to-back games for the first time since March 10 and 14, which were Game Nos. 63 and 64 in the 72-game regular season.
Coleman's number remain strong -- in the playoffs, he owns a 1.44 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. In the last two postseasons, he's 14-2.
Lafranchise (assist) on Friday was named by The Hockey News as the winner of the best name in hockey in a vote by readers. Lafranchise won in the final over Wacey Rabbit.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces 0 2 2 4
Stockton 1 1 0 2
First Period -- 1, Stockton, D'Alvise 4 (Squires, Campbell), 7:32. Penalties -- None.
Second Period -- 2, Aces, Marsh 1 (Kissel, Bruton), 1:18; 3, Stockton, Levesque 1 (Baker, Campbell), 7:13 (pp); 4, Aces, Cruthers 2 (Mazzolini, Lafranchise), 18:16. Penalties -- Cruthers, Aces (cross-checking), 6:38; Marsh, Aces (tripping), 8:24; Fratkin, Stockton (hooking), 9:44; D'Alvise, Stockton (roughing), 13:07; Cruthers, Aces (roughing), 13:07; Fulton, Stockton (roughing), 15:11; Marsh, Aces (roughing), 15:11.
Third Period -- 5, Aces, Ward 1 (Miller, Kissel), 14:08 (pp); 6, Aces, Mazzolini 3, 19:57 (en). Penalties -- Lowery, Stockton (roughing), 2:47; Little, Stockton (tripping), 12:22; Fulton, Stockton (boarding), 16:31.
Shots on goal -- Aces 10-12-8--30. Stockton 12-6-3--21.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 1 of 4. Stockton 1 of 2.
Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 3-1 (21 shots-19 saves). Stockton, Roy, 4-3 (29-26).
A -- 4,227 (9,737). T -- 2:18.
Referee -- T.J. Luxmore. Linesmen -- Todd Owen, Wally Lacroix.Blog: Woody on Hockey
By DOYLE WOODY
Anchorage Daily News