Aces say complaining about a short lineup isn't an option

Doyle Woody

Whether it's simply their nature or a reflection of the blue-collar code of their game -- likely, it's a combination -- hockey players generally are not drama kings and they rarely hold pity parties.

That explains why the ECHL-leading Alaska Aces have absorbed their terribly depleted lineup, gutted largely by departures to the NHL, players loaned to the AHL and other circumstances, with a collective shrug.

When the team practiced Wednesday morning at Ben Boeke, there was plenty of open ice -- just nine forwards and four defensemen were available.

Even so, the Aces put in their work, one last, full practice before traveling to Idaho today for a three-game road trip that opens Friday.

"There's no choice,'' said coach Rob Murray, who is decidedly old-school. "You're short guys, you can cry all you want, it's not going to change. The precedent has been set. You can't use it as a crutch.''

The precedent Murray referenced was a Jan. 6 game in Ontario, Calif., the day news broke that a tentative NHL labor agreement was reached to end the lockout. Three NHLers with the Aces at the time did not dress for the game and Alaska was left with just 14 skaters. Still, it earned a 2-1 victory against a quality opponent on the road.

"Determination and heart played a big part of that win,'' said center Zach Harrison.

Most ECHL teams find themselves short-handed these days because of massive call-ups and loans to AHL teams. The Gwinnett Gladiators played Tuesday night with 13 skaters, three shy of the maximum. And many ECHL teams that are dressing the full 16 players are doing so with the aid of temporary fill-ins.

"It's kind of tough love in the hockey world right now, and I think it's going to be that way the next two, three weeks,'' Harrison said.

Murray expects to have defenseman Mike Baran from the Southern Professional Hockey League and a couple of forwards to be determined meet the team in Idaho to give them something closer to a full lineup -- remember, winger Chris Clackson must sit out Friday to fulfill a league suspension.

While the Aces might, say, tone down their fore-check to conserve energy because so many of their principal players will be logging heavy ice time, Harrison said circumstances won't temper the team's ambition.

"Certainly, we've taken a hit, but our core group is here and we have to deal with it,'' he said. "It just means more opportunities for other players, and that's an exciting thing.''

Shuffling the deck

Between departures, loans to AHL clubs, Clackson's suspension and winger Garry Nunn's injury (badly bruised foot), the Aces likely will play Friday's game with just three of their top 10 scorers in the lineup.

Leading scorer Nick Mazzolini, fourth-leading scorer Alexandre Imbeault and 10th-leading scorer Harrison should be in the lineup.

Colorado's Chad Costello has not played an ECHL game in a month -- he last played Dec. 15, and has been in the AHL since -- yet continues to lead the circuit in scoring with 14-35--49 totals in just 27 games. But Ontario's Colton Yellow Horn is closing in on Costello. Yellow Horn scored a goal in Wednesday's 4-1 win over Las Vegas to give the league's leading goal scorer 30-18--48 totals in 40 games. Yellow Horn has scored six goals in the last three games -- two in a 3-1 win at Alaska on Saturday, a hat trick against Bakersfield on Tuesday and a goal Wednesday.

Costello, by the way, is the reigning league MVP and in the last two seasons has averaged 1.69 points per regular-season game. In seven games against the Aces during that span, though, he has not scored a goal and has generated six assists for .86 points per game.

And turns out Drew O'Connell of Anchorage, who beat the Aces on Saturday in his first pro start, really did travel back to California with the Reign. Wednesday, he stopped 19 shots. In four ECHL appearances, he's 2-0-0 with a 1.00 goals against average and .944 save percentage. Wednesday, he stopped Chris Francis of Vegas on a third-period penalty shot. That makes two penalty-shot saves in two pro starts -- he stopped Alaska's Harrison last Saturday.

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

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