The Alaska Aces no doubt would have coveted a second chance to make a first impression Friday night, when their first impression was that of a speed bump.
The Las Vegas Wranglers unleashed a degree of urgency from the outset that the Aces failed to rival -- Las Vegas bagged two goals in the first four minutes and three in the first period -- and that made for a predictable result.
Wranglers 3, Aces 0.
Las Vegas' victory on home ice at Orleans Arena squared the best-of-7, ECHL Western Conference finals at one game apiece heading into Game 3 Sunday night at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
In the big picture, the split of the series' first two games -- the Aces racked a 2-1 win in Thursday's opener -- proved adequate for Alaska, which under the series' unusual 2-4-1 format now returns home for as many as four straight games at Sullivan. Still, with Game 1's win in hand, and Las Vegas' push-back in Game 2 expected, the Aces didn't come close to matching the Wranglers' relentlessness.
"I guess coming down here we wanted to get at least one win,'' Aces captain Brian Swanson said by cellphone after the loss. "That first period was just awful. If we had lost a hard-fought game, that would have been easier to take.''
Las Vegas snapped Alaska's four-game winning streak and Joe Fallon's 23 saves marked the first time the Aces have been shut out in the playoffs since losing 5-0 to the South Carolina Stingrays in Game 4 of the 2009 Kelly Cup Finals.
Aces coach Rob Murray tried a hat trick of tactics to shake his club from its lethargy, to no avail.
He used his timeout just 4:06 into the game -- former UAA winger Josh Lunden and Scott Campbell had already scored goals by then. He tried to spark the club by pulling starting goaltender Gerald Coleman, who was abandoned by his teammates, after one period in favor of rookie James Reid (13 saves in a perfect pro playoff debut). And he shuffled his lines in the second and third periods.
"I was trying to get anyone going, but we couldn't grab any momentum,'' Murray said.
Las Vegas created its own momentum right from the opening drop, and a common thread ran through its three goals -- the Wranglers got to the net with ferocity, and once there, were not bothered in the least by any Aces.
Lunden scored 98 seconds in, standing at the edge of the crease to whack at an Ash Goldie rebound and then at his own rebound. Campbell struck less than three minutes later, roofing a shot over Coleman's glove from below the right circle, where he was unencumbered. And Campbell scored in the period's final minute, when he was left alone at the right post and buried Lunden's pass from the left-wing boards.
"There was nothing (Coleman) could do,'' Murray said. "Those three goals, guys were left alone.''
Could have been even worse for the visitors in the opening 20 minutes. But Coleman gloved Peter MacArthur's breakaway wrister and sprawled on his side to deny Eric Lampe, the ECHL goal-scoring champ.
For the Wranglers, their first-period outburst earned redemption after a Game 1 performance coach Ryan Mougenel thought was listless.
"For the guys, it was an opportunity to show we can play with Alaska,'' Mougenel said. "The first game, I didn't think we were on the same planet.''
Lunden, who scored 21 goals in 44 regular-season games for the Wranglers and also played 14 games in the American Hockey League, had a hand in all three goals.
"He's been spectacular since he came back from the American League, and even before that,'' Mougenel said. "He's one of those players who doesn't belong (in the ECHL).''
Las Vegas' first-period ambush was unusual for the Aces to absorb. They were the league's top defensive team in the regular season, when only twice in 72 games did they surrender three goals in the first period. And they entered the evening have allowed eight goals in six playoff games, and only one of those in a first period.
"For whatever reason, the puck was hopping over our sticks, we were losing battles, it was one thing after another, and the puck was in the back of our net,'' Swanson said.
Yet the Aces did have some chances to creep back into the game.
With the score still 2-0, Ryan Cruthers, who scored both Aces goals in Game 1, fired a shot into Fallon from the bottom of the left circle, as the goalie was looking the other way. And Garry Nunn missed the net on a slot shot from an odd-man rush.
On a 5-on-3 power play that lasted 69 seconds midway through the game, the Aces twice turned over the puck in the offensive zone. Once they regrouped, defenseman Kane Lafranchise rang a slot wrister off the crossbar and Fallon made a diving save at the left post.
For Murray, breaking down the game was easy.
"They played well and we didn't match it,'' Murray said. "Overall, we didn't have enough guys who were on their A game.''
Not that he expected this series to be anything but a test.
"It's the playoffs -- you've got to earn it,'' Murray said. "At the end of the day, we got the job done here (with a split) and now we have to get the job done at home.''
Shuffling the deck
Aces rookie defenseman David Shields, who suffered a lower-body injury in Game 1, was in the lineup, but played sparingly, which left the team with five defensemen for most of the game.
The Aces were already without defenseman Brandon Gentile (upper-body injury), who did not make the trip and has missed the last three games. If Shields can't go Sunday and Gentile isn't available, rookie Brock Shelgren will likely move into the lineup.
The Aces' streak of four straight games with a power-play goal was snapped -- they went 0 for 3 with the man advantage.
Lunden, Cruthers and Aces winger Dan Kissel all fired a game-high five shots on goal.
Lunden, MacArthur and Wranglers defenseman Jamie Fritsch were all plus 3.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces 0 0 0 -- 0
Las Vegas 3 0 0 -- 3
First Period -- 1, Las Vegas, Lunden 4 (A. Goldie, MacArthur), 1:28; 2, Las Vegas, Campbell 6 (Lunden, Madill), 4:06; 3, Las Vegas, Campbell 7 (MacArthur, Lunden), 19:18. Penalties -- None.
Second Period -- None. Penalties -- Paukovich, Las Vegas (interference), 9:23; Lunden, Las Vegas (roughing), 10:15; Howes, Aces (tripping), 14:56.
Third Period -- None. Penalties -- Kissel, Aces (hooking), 1:14; Fritsch, Las Vegas (boarding), 1:14; Blackwater, Las Vegas (interference), 6:06; Langkow, Aces (high-sticking), 11:18.
Shots on goal -- Aces 11-10-2--23. Las Vegas 15-6-7--28.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 0 of 3. Las Vegas 0 of 2.
Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 5-2 (15 shots-12 saves); Reid, enter 0:00 2nd period (13-13). Las Vegas, Fallon, 3-1 (23-23).
A -- 3,508 (7,773). T -- 2:20.
Referee -- Nick Krebsbach. Linesmen - Todd Owen, Michel Voyer.Blog: Woody on Hockey
By DOYLE WOODY
Anchorage Daily News