Prior to Sunday afternoon’s hockey game against the Stockton Thunder, Alaska Aces coach Rob Murray met with Alexandre Imbeault and got right to the point: The club needed more, much more, out of the winger.
Imbeault went out and bagged a natural hat trick. That combined with Mark Guggenberger’s 21 saves and special-teams superiority to spearhead a 3-1 Aces victory that earned them a sweep of the three-game series at Sullivan Arena and restored them to first place overall in the ECHL.
Both Imbeault and Murray said their conversation was a beneficial exchange. Neither man implied such a talk triggers an instant remedy — if only it were so easy, a coach setting his expectations and a player immediately racking a hat trick — but thought the discussion was productive.
“I was disappointed in his game (Saturday) night, and I guess it was something that was mounting, and it was time for him to snap out of it,’’ Murray said. “Basically, I let him know we need him to be better. In the long run, it’ll help us as a team and him as an individual.
“Whether it worked tonight? He got his goals. He was more tenacious, more engaged.’’
In Imbeault’s seven previous games — he missed two games a week ago in Las Vegas with sickness — he scored just one goal and one assist, and only fired 12 shots on goal. That’s light production for a second-line winger who enjoys power-play time.
Imbeault said he was over-thinking the game, hesitant to make mistakes. Murray said a player with Imbeault’s offensive pedigree — 145 goals and 256 points in 270 career ECHL games — gets some slack when it comes to mistakes.
In any event, Imbeault’s performance Sunday, which included six shots on goal, was good for his head.
“It’s been tough for me this year, offensively,’’ Imbeault said. “I’ve been struggling lately, so this helps. Talking to Murr helped. I’ve been thinking too much. I’m at my best when I don’t think too much, just control the puck and make plays.’’
When Imbeault struggles, it’s usually because he becomes a perimeter player. When he shines – as he did in the Aces’ run to the 2009 Kelly Cup Finals – it’s usually because he gets more involved physically and goes to what players call the dirty areas, along the boards and in front of the net.
Sunday, with Stockton leading 1-0 on Ryan Constant’s power-play strike in the second period, chaos reigned in the Stockton crease after Aces defenseman William Wrenn delivered a blast to the net. As Stockton goaltender Tyler Bunz tried to locate the loose puck and Aces defenseman Steve Ward stabbed his stick at it, Imbeault poked his stick into the pile and jammed it in for a 1-1 tie midway through the period.
“It was just a greasy play,’’ Imbeault said. “I just came in and poked it in. That first one always gives you confidence and gives you energy.’’
Four minutes later, on another power play, Imbeault banged home a rebound of Bobby Hughes’ wrister to earn the Aces a 2-1 lead.
The Aces (35-11-5) scored on two of their three power plays. The Thunder (24-20-9), who are 0-3-1 in their last four games, went 1 for 5 with the man advantage.
Imbeault wrapped the natural hat trick – it marked his seventh ECHL hat trick and his fourth as an Ace – early in the third period. Tommy Mele (two assists) came off the bench to intercept a Stockton pass and fed Zach Harrison, who centered a pass Imbeault rifled in from the low slot for a 3-1 cushion.
The hat trick gave Imbeault 14 goals this season, second to Nick Mazzolini’s 26. Imbeault’s 36 points are second to Mazzolini’s 46.
Imbeault has also tortured Stockton – he has scored eight goals in 10 games against the Thunder this season.
“For us to have success going forward, especially in the playoffs, he has to be a threat every time he’s on the ice,’’ Murray said.
Imbeault said he understands that the second line he plays on with center Hughes – Mele manned left wing Sunday – must generate offense to supplement the first line of Mazzolini and wingers Garry Nunn and Spencer Bennett.
“If the second line doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, that puts a lot of pressure on Mazz’s line,’’ Imbeault said. “We have to score to support them.’’
Shuffling the deck
The Aces have won eight straight games against the Thunder this season after losing their first two games against them.
Alaska’s seven-game point streak (4-0-3) is their second-longest of the season. They enjoyed a 13-game point streak (12-0-1) from mid-December to mid-January.
The Aces’ 44 shots on goal Sunday tied their season high.
With 75 points, the Aces moved one point ahead of the idle Ontario Reign for the league’s overall lead. Ontario has played one fewer game. Alaska does not play Ontario again until the final two games of the regular season in California.
On Imbeault’s first goal, it appeared as if Ward took his right hand off his stick and fished around the pile for the puck. He said he was actually trying to prevent opposing players from getting to the puck.
“I got one whack at it, and then a guy held my blade, so I got down and I tried to block out sticks and gloves,’’ Ward said.
Ward said three tight victories — the Aces won 3-1 on an empty-net goal Friday and 3-2 in a shootout Saturday — were good for confidence.
“We built during the weekend, which is what we were looking for,’’ he said. “We didn’t play that well the first night. We stuck with it, found a way (to win) the first two nights, and (Sunday), we just worked. Nothing flashy, just worked.’’
The Aces head to Utah this week for a four-game series that opens Friday night.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Stockton 0 1 0 — 1
Aces 0 2 1 — 3
First Period — None. Penalties — Curry, Aces (cross-checking), 12:28; Imbeault, Aces (holding), 17:24.
Second Period — 1, Stockton, Constant 6 (Little, Levesque), 7:16 (pp); 2, Aces, Imbeault 12 (Ward, Wrenn), 9:50 (pp); 3, Aces, Imbeault 13 (Hughes, Mele), 13:46 (pp). Penalties — Hunt, Stockton (holding, :45; Mazzolini, Aces (interference), 6:18; Hunt, Stockton (tripping), 8:02; Boisclair, Stockton (goaltender interference), 12:29; Baran, Aces (hooking), 14:15; Hudson, Aces (roughing), 20:00; Hunter, Stockton (roughing), 20:00.
Third Period — 4, Aces, Imbeault 14 (Harrison, Mele), 3:25. Penalties — Bennett, Aces (tripping), 4:11; Haltigin, Aces (roughing), 9:54; Noble, Stockton (roughing), 9:54.
Shots on goal — Stockton 8-10-4—22. Aces 13-16-15—44.
Power-play Opportunities — Stockton 1 of 5. Aces 2 of 3.
Goalies — Stockton, Bunz, 11-12-5 (44 shots-41 saves). Aces, Guggenberger, 17-6-4 (22-21).
A — 3,379 (6,399). T — 2:19.
Referee — Frederic Leblanc. Linesmen — Scott Sivulich, Travis Jackson.
By DOYLE WOODY