Their tenure in the ECHL covers just nine hockey seasons, yet the Alaska Aces treat advancing to the conference finals -- just one precious step removed from the championship round -- as if it were a franchise birthright.
Saturday night, the defending Kelly Cup champions dismissed the home-standing Stockton Thunder for the third straight game, 4-1 in Game 5 of the conference semifinals, to lock their spot in the Western Conference Finals.
This marks the third time in four seasons and the sixth time in those nine ECHL seasons that the two-time Cup winners have qualified for the conference finals.
And this club that proved exceedingly average on the road in the regular season -- Alaska's 14-13-9 record in hostile rinks tied for 10th on the 20-team circuit -- did so by overwhelming Stockton in its own barn.
After splitting the first two games of the best-of-7 series in Anchorage, the Aces reeled off three straight road kills at Stockton Arena by a combined score of 12-3, and Saturday never gave the Thunder more than a brief, faint sniff of hope.
"Stockton for the most part is a very good hockey team, they're a hard-working hockey team,'' Aces coach Rob Murray said by cellphone. "But at the end of the day we had more depth and it showed through.
"Good goaltending, and the guys played well to a man. The cream rose to the top, I guess you could say, and we were able to manage the series real well when we got down here.''
The Aces regained home-ice advantage, though it turned out they never needed it, with Wednesday's 4-0 win, and they pushed the Thunder into a win-or-book-tee-times position with Friday's 4-2 victory.
Aces goaltender Gerald Coleman, who stopped 30 shots Saturday, said a speech by assistant coach and former Aces defenseman Louis Mass about commitment and passion prior to Game 3 furnished inspiration and energy for a veteran team. About half the club consists of returners from last year's Kelly Cup champs, who blitzed through three rounds of playoffs with a 12-1 record.
Also, energy from newcomers like Ryan Cruthers and Chris Bruton boosted the vets, Coleman said. He said the Aces also found a bit of motivation in hearing the Thunder celebrate their 3-2 overtime win in Game 2.
"Last year was kind of a fluke -- you're not going 12-1 again,'' Coleman said. "It's going to be a grind.
"Experience played a big part. We heard them hooting and hollering like they won the Stanley Cup (after Game 2). We don't have that mentality. For us, it's just another day at the office. We look at it like, 'That's just one game.' "
Consecutive goals midway through the first period Saturday furnished the Aces a quick lead and put them on their way to three straight road wins for the first time since late November and just the second time all season.
The Aces await the winner of the Las Vegas-Idaho series, in which Las Vegas holds a 3-1 command entering Sunday's Game 5 in Boise.
Dan Kissel, who opened the scoring, led Alaska's assault Saturday with two goals and an assist. Defenseman Steve Ward, who furnished the game-winning strike in Game 4 with a power-play goal, added another power-play marker, and Garry Nunn notched his second goal of the series.
As Murray pointed out, though, the series victory hinged on collaboration. Nine different Aces scored goals and 18 players, including Coleman (Game 3 assist) generated at least one point. Also, the Aces permitted seven goals in five games. Coleman racked a goals-against average of 1.36 and a save percentage of .946, and his only loss of the series came on Chris D'Alvise's overtime, power-play snipe job, which was of the highest quality.
In the last two postseasons combined, Coleman is 15-2 with a 1.62 goals-against average and .940 save percentage -- those are the kind of numbers that get guys fitted for rings.
"Recently, he's been lights out,'' Murray said.
Kissel's goal midway through the first period, after Brian Swanson deflected a Wes Goldie shot, furnished a 1-0 lead. Ward soon cranked his power-play goal, which appeared to change direction after hitting a Stockton stick, to push the margin to 2-0.
Though Stockton's Jesse Fratkin answered three minutes into the second period when Mike Little's floating shot banked off Fratkin's lower body, Nunn redirected a Nick Mazzolini pass behind Olivier Roy (22 saves) about four minutes later to restore Alaska's two-goal cushion at 3-1.
Kissel late in the second period had a 2-on-1 with Goldie and roofed a left-circle rocket over Roy's glove.
Coleman and company, who were unhappy with their defensive performance in Game 2, when they surrendered an abundance of scoring chances, applied the clamps after that, just as they did throughout the three games in California.
"We knew we didn't play well defensively in Game 2, and we took that to heart, and we wanted to be better,'' Coleman said.
Shuffling the deck
Murray said a Stockton fan doused him with beer in the waning seconds of the game and was removed by security.
"Some guy poured a beer over my head and ruined my hairdo,'' Murray, who keeps his locks cut trim, joked to broadcaster Josh Bogorad in a post-game television interview. "I got out on the ice and Colesy looked at me funny because I smelled like beer.''
Aces defenseman Brandon Gentile sat out with an upper-body injury suffered in Game 4. Rookie David Shields, in his pro playoff debut, filled in nicely, furnishing two assists and a plus-2 rating.
Also missing was Bruton, out with a lower-body injury. Rookie Tim Hall took his spot in the lineup.
Both teams lost pivotal players just six minutes into the game. Cruthers speared D'Alvise on a face-off and D'Alvise, Stockton's most dangerous player, countered by cross-checking Cruthers in the back of the head. Both players received major penalties and game misconducts. Still, pretty good trade-off for the Aces.
Mazzolini led Aces scorers in the series with 3-3--6 totals, and Kissel (3-2--5) and Goldie (1-4--5) each furnished five points. Goldie was the only player in the series to have a point in each game, and he led the Aces with a plus-6 rating. Chad Anderson led Aces defensemen with a plus-4 rating.
After struggling on the power play late in the regular season and in the first two games of the series -- the Aces went 0 for 27 during that stretch -- Alaska scored a power-play goal in each of the last three games of the series.
Aces 2 2 0 -- 4
Stockton 0 1 0 -- 1
First Period -- 1, Aces, Kissel 2 (Swanson, Goldie), 11:13; 2, Aces, Ward 2 (Miller, Goldie), 13:04 (pp). Penalties -- Foy, Stockton (interference), :08; D'Alvise, Stockton, major-game misconduct (cross-checking), 5:57; Aces, Cruthers, major-game misconduct (spearing), 5:57; Deck, Stockton (holding the stick), 12:34.
Second Period -- 3, Stockton, Fratkin 2 (Little, Foy), 3:14; 4, Aces, Nunn 2 (Mazzolini, Shields), 7:30; 5, Aces, Kissel 3 (Shields), 18:32. Penalties -- Anderson, Aces (roughing), 14:26.
Third Period -- None. Penalties -- Hunt, Stockton (high-sticking), 11:28; Miller, Aces (cross-checking), 13:09; Squires, Stockton (tripping), 14:53; Foy, Stockton (slashing), 16:04; Kwiet, Stockton, misconduct-game misconduct (unsportsmanlike conduct), 19:08; Anderson, Aces, misconduct (unsportsmanlike conduct), 19:08; Brodie, Stockton (boarding), 19:53.
Shots on goal -- Aces 8-11-7--26. Stockton 8-16-7--31.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 1 of 6. Stockton 0 of 2.
Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 4-1 (31 shots-30 saves). Stockton, Roy, 4-4 (26-22).
A -- 3,914 (9,737). T -- 2:22.
Referee -- Joe Sullivan. Linesmen -- Todd Owen, Wally Lacroix.Blog: Woody on Hockey
By DOYLE WOODY
Anchorage Daily News