Home openers are nearly always jubilant occasions for the Alaska Aces and their fans — the hockey club adds to its bevy of banners trumpeting success and then racks a victory in front of the faithful.
Friday night, banners were unfurled to recognize last season’s accomplishments — the Brabham Cup as regular-season ECHL champions, as well as the Western Conference and Mountain Division crowns.
That’s where the usual drill stopped, though, because the Utah Grizzlies brought the buzz-kill to Sullivan Arena.
Utah raced to a four-goal lead and bagged a 5-2 victory that snuffed the Aces’ string of eight consecutive victories in home openers and handed them just their second loss in 10 ECHL home openers.
The combination of Utah’s explosive offense and Alaska’s sloppy defense muted an announced crowd of 5,328.
“I honestly don’t remember a game last season when we were that poor defensively,’’ said Aces coach Rob Murray. “Point-blank chances, rush recognition, defensive zone coverage — it was horrible.’’
Nor did it help the home team that second-year goaltender James Reid struggled (17 saves) while Utah’s Andrew Engelage came up huge — well, he is 6-foot-5 — with 33 saves.
Alaska (1-2-0) trailed 4-0 entering the third period — this from a franchise that owns a long history of home-ice excellence and last season generated the circuit’s best record (29-5-2) on home ice.
Though the Aces have pulled off some remarkable comebacks at Sullivan, a four-goal gap is a tough one to cover — not impossible, but highly improbable.
And although NHLer Brandon Dubinsky scored his first goal as an Ace on a breakaway just 14 seconds into the third period and William Wrenn’s power-play strike cut the deficit to 4-2 with 11 minutes to go, the Grizzlies (3-0-0) didn’t falter.
“We didn’t want to panic,’’ said Utah’s Mitch Wahl. “We got together and said, ‘Let’s stay calm.’ ’’
Wahl scored less than three minutes after Wrenn’s marker to furnish the Grizzlies a 5-2 cushion and give Wahl a three-point night. He also assisted on Utah’s first two goals, rookie defenseman Drew MacKenzie’s first pro goal in the first period and NHLer Brad Mills’ backhander early in the second period.
Engelage stopped Dubinsky in tight in the first period and gloved Tommy Mele’s wrister off the rush. His right-pad denial of Matt Ambroz’s redirected shot in the second period kick-started a counter-attack that culminated in Colin Vock’s goal to make it 3-0. Chris Donovan added a late second-period goal when Mills’ move from behind the net and subsequent pass left Donovan with a tap-in at the right post.
Engelage in the second period got the cuff of his glove on Garry Nunn’s slot shot and stoned Mele at the buzzer signaling intermission.
“He made some big saves when we needed them,’’ Wahl said. “He’s kind of the backbone of our defense, and we’re happy to have him.’’
Aces captain Steve Ward said his club lacked precision and passion.
“Not a good effort on our part,’’ Ward said. “We had some chances, but when they didn’t go in, we kind of lost our details for a while.
“I don’t know if we started feeling sorry for ourselves about not scoring, or what.’’
The Aces also lost defenseman Kane Lafranchise in the third period. He’s listed as day-to-day after taking a hit to the head from Utah’s Riley Armstrong, who was issued a match penalty.
Consecutive losses — the Aces fell 3-1 at Colorado last Saturday after winning their season opener 6-3 over the Eagles — left the team solemn.
“You look at our roster, and it’s very exciting,’’ Ward said. “(But) we’ve got to come to work every day. It’s not going to come easy.’’
Shuffling the deck
Alaska’s veteran scratches were winger Matt Robinson and defenseman Sean Curry. Also out were Tim Hall (upper-body injury), Jarred Smith and newcomer Chris Haltigin.
Tough night for Wrenn and fellow defenseman Corey Syvret — both went minus-4.
Dubinsky led the Aces with five shots on goal and Wahl led Utah with five shots on goal.
Utah winger Kory Falite cranked three shots and defenseman Mark Isherwood had two — those two helped the Aces to the 2011 Kelly Cup.
Utah defenseman Nick Tuzzolino, the former Ace, didn’t make the trip because of a lower-body injury.
The Grizzlies practiced a couple of times this week on an Olympic-sized rink back home to prepare for the series. Sullivan features the only Olympic ice in the ECHL.
Alaska killed all five Utah power plays. Through three games, the Aces have surrendered just one power-play goal in opponents’ 19 power plays.
Former Aces coach Davis Payne, now an assistant with the Los Angeles Kings, received a big ovation when his arrival was announced during the game. Payne, who guided the Aces to the 2006 Kelly Cup, is scheduled to drop the ceremonial puck at Saturday’s series finale.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Utah 1 3 1 — 5
Aces 0 0 2 — 2
First Period — 1, Utah, MacKenzie 1 (Wahl, Burrows), 6:14. Penalties — Crabb, Aces (hooking), 1:30; Vock, Utah (hooking), 1:30; Isherwood, Utah (roughing), 9:49.
Second Period — 2, Utah, Mills 2 (Wahl, Martin), 2:06; 3, Utah, Vock 2 (Patterson, Donovan), 14:48; 4, Utah, Donovan 1 (Mills), 18:28. Penalties — Molle, Aces, double-minor (roughing), 2:16; Nunn, Aces (roughing), 2:16; Mills, Utah (roughing), 2:16; Martin, Utah (holding), 4:43; Syvret, Aces (holding), 5:22; Wrenn, Aces (roughing), 6:46; Mills, Utah (slashing), 16:17; Thompson, Aces (cross-checking), 18:50; Howse, Utah (unsportsmanlike conduct-diving), 18:50.
Third Period — 5, Aces, Dubinsky 1 (Crabb), :14; 6, Aces, Wrenn 2 (Nunn, Sinkewich), 8:50 (pp); 7, Utah, Wahl 1 (McIlveen, Cameron), 11:32. Penalties — Sinkewich, Aces (roughing), 4:54; Armstrong, Utah, match penalty, served by Cameron (contact to head), 4:54; Molle, Aces (tripping), 15:21; McIlveen, Utah (tripping), 15:42; Wahl, Utah (slashing), 16:30.
Shots on goal — Utah 5-13-4—22. Aces 13-11-11—35.
Power-play Opportunities — Utah 0 of 5. Aces 1 of 6.
Goalies — Utah, Engelage, 3-0-0 (35-32 saves). Aces, Reid, 1-1-0 (22-17).
A — 5,328 (6,399). T — 2:23.
Referee — Geoff Miller. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.
Woody on hockey
By DOYLE WOODY