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Las Vegas knocks Aces out of championship contention

Doyle Woody
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

Three weeks from now, 18 other ECHL teams will have endured the somber sentiments the Alaska Aces shared Wednesday night, when their hockey season, and their defense of the Kelly Cup, went dark.

Las Vegas' 3-1 victory over the Aces -- the third straight Wranglers win on Alaska's home ice at Sullivan Arena -- earned it the Western Conference championship and the franchise's second trip to the Cup Finals.

For the Aces, who last season won the second Cup in franchise history and sought the club's fourth trip to the Finals, the final defeat was a microcosm of the best-of-7 series the Wranglers seized in five games.

The Aces, winners of Game 1 in Las Vegas, struggled mightily to score goals, to maintain momentum and to exploit the home ice that served them so well in the regular season. At Sullivan, they earned the best home-ice record in the 20-team league and became the first club in the 24-season history of the league to claim consecutive Brabham Cups as regular-season champions.

No team has repeated as ECHL playoff champs since the Toledo Storm in 1993 and 1994.

"Only one team is happy at the end,'' said Aces captain Brian Swanson. "I'm proud of our team. No one gave up. Everyone came out like we needed to (Wednesday).

"We lost to a really good team. We threw everything we had at them and they were just a better team. They're very well-rounded; they're not one-dimensional. They have the full package.''

So it was that music blared from the visitors' locker room, where the Wranglers possessed the Bruce Taylor Trophy as Western Conference kings.

In the Aces' dressing room, many players were still in some of their gear 20 to 30 minutes after the game. In the relative quiet of the hallway outside, two of Swanson's three children, son Mac and daughter Sydney, played a game of floor hockey.

The Wranglers, 11-2 through three rounds of the playoffs, await the winner of the Eastern Conference finals between the Florida Everblades and Kalamazoo K-Wings, the club Alaska beat in five games to hoist the league's most precious hockey hardware last season. Florida leads 2-1 in that series after Wednesday's 7-0 win over visiting Kalamazoo.

After dropping the opener in Las Vegas, the Wranglers reeled off four straight victories over the Aces.

"We just kept our game simple and stayed our course,'' said Wranglers sniper Eric Lampe, who furnished one goal and one assist Wednesday, and three goals in the three games at Sullivan. "It's obviously tough to win three in a row here, but we have a special group.''

Las Vegas regained its footing in the series with a 3-0 home win in Game 2, won Sunday night's Game 3, 3-2, on Lampe's second overtime winner of the postseason and began taking control of the series. That continued with Tuesday's 3-2 win in Game 4.

"I think the one thing they had was confidence,'' said Aces goaltender Gerald Coleman, who compared the Wranglers' depth and talent to the Aces of a season ago. "Their confidence kept growing and ours slowly deflated.''

The Aces entered Wednesday night facing a 3-1 series deficit that only four teams in ECHL history have conquered. That made a strong start mandatory for any shot of making history, especially considering the Wranglers had reeled off strong starts in winning Game Nos. 2-4.

After a combustible start -- Aces winger Chris Bruton and Wranglers winger Adam Huxley dropped the gloves at the opening faceoff, as did Alaska's Jordan Kremyr and Las Vegas' Robbie Smith -- the Aces struck first on Dan Kissel's power-play strike just more than five minutes into the match.

Kissel carried the puck through neutral ice, danced to the middle of the rink to gain the Las Vegas zone and blew a 55-foot slap shot past Joe Fallon (17 saves). That was the only chink in Fallon's armor -- he stopped 123 of 130 shots (.946 save percentage) in the series -- though it did mark the first time the Aces led since Game 1.

The Wranglers answered forcefully and engineered the only lead change in the series.

Lampe struck on the power play nine minutes after Kissel's goal. After Coleman (24 saves and an assist on Kissel's goal) stopped Jeff May's drive from the right point, former Aces winger Judd Blackwater, perched at the edge of the crease, kicked the rebound left to Lampe, who buried it.

Four minutes later, the Wranglers again executed a play that bedeviled the Aces all series. Adam Miller collected the puck on the wall in his zone and hit Lampe on right wing with a long stretch pass to the Aces blue line. Alaska defenseman Steve Ward sniffed out the play and angled Lampe to the boards, but he jumped past Ward for a shot on goal, and Blackwater cashed in on the rebound.

"It was one of those disheartening things,'' Aces center Ryan Cruthers said of losing the lead.

The line of Lampe, Blackwater and Miller was too much for the Aces. In the three wins at Sullivan, that line accounted for six goals, one more than the Aces' entire output in that stretch.

"That top line has really good speed and chemistry,'' Cruthers said. "Very impressive.''

Las Vegas asserted its edge in the last five-plus minutes of the first period and throughout the second period, outshooting the Aces 22-7 in that span of 25-plus minutes.

Time and again, the Aces could not routinely get the puck to the Wranglers net. The few times they did, Fallon either smothered the puck or his defense cleared it out of harm's way.

"They definitely make it hard to get to the front of the net, the danger zone,'' said Aces winger Wes Goldie.

Fallon credited his five defensemen with exquisite work.

"All our D were solid,'' he said. "They can box out, they can battle and they can stop the rush. And probably one of my best qualities is controlling rebounds.''

In the third period, the Wranglers were content to dump the puck deep into the Aces' zone and make them come 200 feet in search of the equalizer. Alaska's best chance came with about seven minutes to go, when Fallon flashed his left hand to get a piece of his glove on Nick Mazzolini's blistering drive from the left circle.

Alaska owned a power play for the final 88 seconds and pulled Coleman for a sixth attacker in that stretch, but could not crack Las Vegas. The Wranglers' series win became complete when former UAA winger Josh Lunden scored short-handed into an empty net from his own zone with 2.4 seconds left -- that marked Las Vegas' only shot on goal in the period.

The Aces were left to ponder what might have been with a bounce in their favor here or there, or a better outcome in Game 3, when they had chances in overtime.

"I've been to the conference finals three times and I can't get out of them,'' said Cruthers, acquired in a late-season trade with Reading. "It's so hard, so tough, especially when you're the team that won it last year and everyone is gunning for you.

"Playoffs is about breaks and opportunities, and when you capitalize. That's hockey.''

Find Doyle Woody's blog at or call him at 257-4335.

Las Vegas 2 0 1 -- 3

Aces 1 0 0 -- 1

First Period -- 1, Aces, Kissel 5 (Lafranchise, Coleman), 5:22 (pp); 2, Las Vegas, Lampe 6 (Blackwater, May), 14:28 (pp); 3, Las Vegas, Blackwater 4 (Lampe, Miller), 18:22. Penalties -- Bruton, Aces, major-game misconduct (fighting, secondary altercation), :02; Huxley, Las Vegas, major-game misconduct (fighting, secondary altercation), :02; Kremyr, Aces, major (fighting) :02; Smith, Las Vegas, major (fighting), :02; Blackwater, Las Vegas (boarding), 1:39; Madill, Las Vegas (slashing), 4:02; Kremyr, Aces (high-sticking), 7:09; Nunn, Aces (boarding), 14:19.

Second Period -- None. Penalties -- Kissel, Aces (boarding), 16:56.

Third Period -- 4, Las Vegas, Lunden 4, 19:57 (sh-en). Penalties -- Campbell, Las Vegas (hooking), 18:32.

Shots on goal -- Las Vegas 14-12-1--27. Aces 8-4-6--18.

Power-play Opportunities -- Las Vegas 1 of 3. Aces 1 of 4.

Goalies -- Las Vegas, Fallon, 6-1 (18 shots-17 saves). Aces, Coleman, 5-5 (26-24).

A -- 3,783 (6,399). T -- 2:17.

Referee -- Ryan Murphy. Linesmen -- Scott Sivulich, Steve Glines.

Photos: Game 5
Aces vs. Wranglers
Anchorage Daily News