The state of the Alaska Aces at the holiday break: Top team in the ECHL in points and winning percentage, and winners of five straight games after wrapping a three-game sweep of the Stockton Thunder with Saturday night’s 4-1 win.
Not bad for any hockey club, and certainly not for one so hobbled by injuries that coach Rob Murray through 31 games has yet to be able to dress his optimal lineup. Seventeen different Aces players have missed a combined 215 games to injuries and another four to illness — that total of 219 games missed already is more than the club suffered in either of the two previous full seasons.
Yet Alaska (23-8-0) hits the break in great spirits because it has assembled two six-game winning streaks, its current five-game streak and another four-game streak.
Naturally, it does not hurt the Aces that they enjoy the services of four NHLers from Anchorage during the lockout. Still, three of those — Brandon Dubinsky, Nate Thompson and Scott Gomez — have missed significant time with injuries.
With irregular lineups a common occurrence, though, the Aces have found ways to persevere, whether its locals like Merit Waldrop and Brad Gorham aiding them with solid fill-in work or guys who are not principal top-liners measuring up when given more responsibility.
Case in point: Bobby Hughes has often been a third-liner this season, and Saturday night he generated one goal and one assist at Sullivan Arena.
Stalwarts have lived up to that billing too. Nick Mazzolini, who furnished three assists Saturday, has delivered 18-15—33 totals in 31 games. NHLer Joey Crabb, who opened the scoring Saturday with a gorgeous breakaway backhander, owns 14-19—33 totals. And Garry Nunn, who generated one goal and one helper Saturday, has produced 10-18—28 totals in 31 games.
“I think we’ve done very well, obviously,’’ Hughes said. “We’re on top. It’s even more impressive when you factor in the injuries and guys in and out of the lineup.’’
Also, goaltenders Gerald Coleman, who made 17 saves Saturday, and Mark Guggenberger have given the Aces a sturdy defensive foundation.
Defenseman Kane Lafranchise has flourished with 4-17—21 totals in 27 games. And rookie defenseman William Wrenn not only has chipped in 5-10—15 totals in 31 games, he no doubt earned massive respect in the dressing room for what he did at the opening drop of the puck Saturday.
Wrenn challenged Stockton defenseman Teigan Zahn to fight. Zahn had spent some of Friday’s 5-1 Aces win chirping and challenging Aces center Scott Gomez, the NHL veteran who isn’t a fighter.
“I’m not really a fighter, but the guy was running around (Friday),’’ Wrenn said. “I just asked him, respectfully, and he said yes.
“I don’t say much, but I try to lead in my own way. I figured why not try him?’’
The fight lasted one punch – Wrenn dropped Zahn to the ice with a right cross.
Murray said his team has proved very coachable, no matter who is in the lineup.
“Are you going to win every night? Well, no,’’ Murray said. “But if you prepare every night, you give yourself a chance.’’
The Aces have never lost more than two consecutive games so far this season, which Mazzolini said is a reflection of professionalism.
“We hold each other accountable,’’ he said. “If we have a sluggish first period, we respond in the second period. If we have a sluggish game, we respond the next game.’’
Hughes noted that the NHL players on the Aces — all four are from Anchorage — haven’t rested on their resumes. A good example is Crabb. In Friday night’s game, he made a pass from behind the Stockton net that was intercepted and kick-started a 2-on-1 for the Thunder. Crabb skated so furiously on the back-check that he caught up to the play and negated the odd-man rush.
“You look at a guy like Joey Crabb and he works so hard, and battles, and the rest of us feed off that and learn from that,’’ Hughes said.
Shuffling the deck
The Aces are 5-0-0 with Gorham in the lineup — he’s a former UAA defenseman from Anchorage. Saturday, he dropped the gloves in one of four fights in the game.
Alexandre Imbeault’s empty-net goal was his third goal in three games.
Alaska improved to 12-3-0 at Sullivan this season.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Stockton 0 0 1 — 1
Aces 1 2 1 — 4
First Period — 1, Aces, Crabb 14 (Robinson, Harrison), 16:36. Penalties — Wrenn, Aces, major (fighting), :03; Zahn, Stockton, major (fighting), :03; Robinson, Aces (high-sticking), 14:29; Molle, Aces, major (fighting), 16:37; Abney, Stockton, major (fighting), 16:37; Clackson, Aces, major (fighting), 16:39; Hunt, Stockton, major (fighting), 16:39; Maylan, Stockton (slashing), 18:46.
Second Period — 2, Aces, Hughes 3 (Mazzolini, Nunn), 4:24 (pp); 3, Aces, Nunn 10 (Mazzolini, Hughes), 15:41 (pp). Penalties — Stockton bench minor, served by Reindeau (too many men), 2:25; Hughes, Aces (hooking), 6:33; Rajala, Stockton, double-minor (high-sticking), 6:36; Zahn, Stockton (cross-checking), 14:09; Bergland, Stockton, double-minor (spearing), 20:00; Gorham, Aces, major (fighting), 20:00; DeHart, Stockton, major (fighting), 20:00.
Third Period — 4, Stockton, Little 4 (Reindeau, Rajala), 6:42 (pp); 5, Aces, Imbeault 7 (Mazzolini), 18:32. Penalties — Hughes, Aces (tripping), 6:33; DeHart, Stockton (high-sticking), 8:17; Zahn, Stockton (slashing), 14:42.
Shots on goal — Stockton 5-6-7—18. Aces 6-10-13—29.
Power-play Opportunities — Stockton 1 of 3. Aces 2 of 9.
Goalies — Stockton, Reichard, 7-2-3 (28 shots-25 saves). Aces, Coleman, 8-3-0 (181-7).
A — 5,819 (6,399). T – 2:24.
Referee — Tom Chmielewski. Linesmen — Scott Sivulich, Steve
By DOYLE WOODY