The Alaska Aces and Las Vegas Wranglers have developed something of a mutual admiration society this hockey season -- "You're awesome!'' "No, you're awesome!'' -- and for once all the rose petals being tossed aren't simply gamesmanship designed to stay off each others' dressing-room white boards.
This really does smell like a long playoff series -- six games, or the full seven.
The Wranglers rolled over the Utah Grizzlies in the minimum three games in the best-of-5 first round of the ECHL's Kelly Cup playoffs and brushed the Idaho Steelheads off the sleeves of their sweaters in just five games in the best-of-7 Western Conference semifinals.
The defending Kelly Cup champion Aces, who bagged a first-round bye for the second straight season by virtue of racking the best record in the conference -- in the league, also, for that matter -- sent the Stockton Thunder packing in a mere five games. The Aces shoved the Thunder into tee times with three straight wins in California.
"We're both pretty good hockey teams,'' Wranglers bench boss Ryan Mougenel said earlier this week, and you could almost hear a shrug of the shoulders through the phone.
When the puck drops on the Western Conference finals with Thursday night's opener at Orleans Arena in Sin City, it's easy to peg the Aces as the favorites. They're the defending champs. They have racked the best regular-season record in the league two seasons running. They have the pucks pedigree -- two Kelly Cups in the last six seasons and three Kelly Cup Finals appearances in that stretch.
Yet that does not even remotely mean the Wranglers are Team Underdog. Basically, they're stacked. Any of their top six forwards -- the wicked-good first line of Adam Miller centering Eric Lampe and former Ace Judd Blackwater, and Peter MacArthur centering former UAA winger Josh Lunden and Ash Goldie (little bro of Aces sniper Wes) -- could be playing one level up in the American Hockey League. And keep in mind their leading playoff goal scorer, Scott Campbell (four goals), is a third-liner.
Their defense is formidable and Joe Fallon, runner-up for Goaltender of the Year, might have been the pick as the top masked man if he hadn't spent so much time in the AHL. Las Vegas has surrendered all of 13 goals in eight playoff games.
"They're as strong as they've been all season,'' said Aces coach Rob Murray.
The last time the Aces visited Orleans, a 4-2 loss on March 27, all three members of the Miller line delivered a goal.
"We didn't have any answer for them,'' Murray said. "Could we have been better? Sure. But they are dynamic. Being aware of them when they're on the ice, and puck management, is going to be important.''
The Aces, of course, are not exactly wanting in talent and depth. Roughly half their roster is made up of guys who have a Kelly Cup ring. Goaltender Gerald Coleman, who is merely 15-2 the last two postseasons, spearheads a group that permitted Stockton just seven goals in five games. And Alaska just regained the services of winger Scott Howes, who has a bold-faced entry that stands out on his rink resume: 2012 Kelly Cup Most Valuable Player.
"They're playing playoff hockey, which is scary because they have veterans who can turn it on and they have a team that is committed and playing hockey the right way,'' Mougenel said.
By that, Mougenel means the Aces are disciplined -- they were the league's least-penalized team in the regular season. The Wranglers likewise play with poise. Games between these clubs are generally high-tempo and tight, mostly free of boneheaded penalties, and a joy.
Sure, there's going to be some face-washing after the whistle and some hurt feelings -- that's playoff hockey. But the prospect of any game degenerating into a Gong Show is almost nil.
About the only thing lacking in this series is the traditional 2-3-2 format, which would have had the schedule starting in Anchorage, then heading to Las Vegas, then back to Anchorage.
Because both clubs suffered rink-availability problems, the format is 2-4-1, Las Vegas-Anchorage-Las Vegas. Yes, it blows. The Aces don't get the first two games at Sullivan Arena -- where they fashioned the league's best regular-season, home-ice record -- and thus the improved chance to generate series momentum. Plus, they have to travel a minimum of two times, and possibly three times. The Wranglers face the prospect of four straight road games in a building where visitors rarely reign.
Bummer, all around.
Still, the sky isn't falling.
And this series holds the promise of something special.
"I'd be really surprised if this isn't a great series,'' said Aces veteran Wes Goldie. "I'd be disappointed.''
This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.Blog: Woody on Hockey
By DOYLE WOODY
Anchorage Daily News