Counter-intuitive as it seems, the easiest thing about goaltender Gerald Coleman's season debut for the Alaska Aces was how hard it initially proved.
Coleman, in his return from offseason surgery on his left hip, didn't have time last Friday night to wonder whether those repairs were up to snuff. He didn't have time to consider the likelihood of rink rust after more than seven months between hockey games. And he didn't have time to be nervous or anxious.
Not when the Utah Grizzlies were turning his crease into a shooting gallery -- the Grizzlies fired unloaded 10 shots on Coleman in the first seven-plus minutes.
"I didn't have time to think,'' Coleman said. "My mind turned off and I just had to react. I didn't have time to worry. It was nice.''
Coleman and company survived that early onslaught, in which host Utah scored less than four minutes in, to register a 5-1 ECHL win on the front end of a two-game sweep.
Coleman, the Aces' No. 1 goalie each of the previous two seasons and the guy who backstopped them to the Kelly Cup in 2011, will start Wednesday night when the club continues its road trip against the Stockton Thunder in California.
Coleman, reached by cell phone in Stockton on Tuesday, said a power play Utah enjoyed shortly after taking a 1-0 lead proved a turning point that convinced him he would be fine. He said a point-blank shot he stopped buoyed his confidence.
"Once I made that save -- it could have been 2-0, and it wasn't -- I gave the team a chance and we weathered the storm,'' Coleman said.
Coleman made 29 saves, and Aces coach Rob Murray said he looked every bit the confident goalie he remembers.
"Colesy is the type of guy who exudes confidence in the net and it really rubs off on his teammates,'' Murray said. "He has that demeanor where he has his teammates' backs, and they really appreciate that.''
Coleman said he was tired after his first game in more than half a year and could have played the next night if it was a critical game -- say, the postseason. As it was, Mark Guggenberger on Saturday backstopped the Aces to a 5-4 overtime win in Utah.
"I was a little sore afterward,'' Coleman said of his debut, "but nothing unexpected after not playing for seven months. If it was playoffs, I could have played (Saturday), but it's one of those things where you have to ease into it.''
Coleman's hip bothered him some in each of the two previous seasons. Now that it is repaired, he said, he no longer has to wonder if he'll feel pain when he rises back onto his skates after dropping into the butterfly position. Nor does he have to wonder if he'll be able to get back up, period.
He said his rehabilitation with Eric Steenburgh of Rebound Sports and Orthopedic Physical Therapy has him "in the best shape I've ever been in.''
Shuffling the deck
Murray said center Scott Gomez, who sat out the two games in Utah with a minor lower-body injury that the team did not want to risk exacerbating, will play against Stockton. Murray said Gomez went through a full practice with the team Tuesday.
Aces foward Nick Mazzolini already has accumulated a league-leading five game-winning goals, two more than any other player.
Still, the league record is a long way off. Toledo's Brad McCaughey set the mark in 1991-92 with 15 game-winning strikes. That is particularly noteworthy because ECHL teams played 64 regular-season games back then -- they play 72 now -- and McCaughey played in just 58 games that season.
Of course, he was a goal machine playing in an era of high-octane offense -- McCaughey delivered 56-44--100 totals that season, which merely tied him for eighth in the league in points. His Toledo club racked 367 goals, the third-most in league history, for an average of 5.73 goals per game.
McCaughey's 15 game winners that season were nearly double anyone else -- the next closest player delivered eight.
McCaughey went on to coach the Alaska Gold Kings of the now-defunct West Coast Hockey League in 1996-97.
The last time an ECHL player cracked double digits in game-winning goals was two seasons ago, when Kalamazoo's Andrew Fournier generated 10 in 68 games.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
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By DOYLE WOODY