No one exhaled harder than Alaska Aces winger Chris Clackson when teammate Nick Mazzolini’s slick back-handed pass triggered Garry Nunn’s game-winning, third-period goal Friday night in a 2-1 victory over the Bakersfield Condors at Sullivan Arena.
That’s because Clackson’s glaring turnover early in the period gifted Bakersfield’s Tyler Maxwell with a game-tying goal.
But six and a half minutes after Maxwell generated a 1-1 tie, Mazzolini’s dish to his long-time linemate Nunn cracked the tie and enabled the ECHL-leading Aces (42-12-6) to seize their third straight victory.
Nunn’s goal came after Mazzolini stick-handled through the defense in the left circle — granted, he said, he received a fortuitous bounce of the puck off a Condors player — and worked the puck behind the net, moving left to right. Instead of circling the net, though, the left handed-shooting Mazzolini threaded a backhand pass back to the left circle, where Nunn flicked a shot over the right pad of Brian Stewart to ruin Stewart’s splendid 43-save performance.
“Garry’s been playing with me long enough to know that puck’s coming back to him in a perfect world,’’ Mazzolini said.
That’s exactly what Nunn expected.
“That’s a play (Mazzolini) tries a lot — me and him have connected on it before,’’ Nunn said. “It’s a really tough move (for the opponent) to read.
“It was an unbelievable pass. It was right on my tape. It’s as easy a goal as you’re going to get.’’
When Mazzolini and Nunn arrived back at the bench, Clackson greeted them.
“Right away, he said, ‘Nunner, Mazz, thanks,’ ” Nunn said. “Guys make mistakes. It’s gonna happen. No one’s perfect. It’s fine, it’s all good.’’
Clackson’s turnover came when he collected the puck in the left corner of the Aces zone and whipped a diagonal pass behind his net, thinking he was giving the puck to Alaska defenseman Chris Haltigin. It was Maxwell, however, and he jammed the puck inside the right post on Aces goalie Mark Guggenberger (22 saves).
“I was pretty choked,’’ Clackson said. “I’m obviously relieved (by Nunn’s goal), but I’m still upset about the turnover.’’
Aces coach Rob Murray had Clackson out on the ice in the last minute, though, when the Condors pulled Stewart for an extra attacker in an effort to forge the equalizer.
The Aces have earned at least a point in 15 of their last 16 games. Friday’s win pushed them to the 90-point mark and allowed them to maintain a seven-point lead on the Ontario Reign, who beat Colorado 4-2 and have played two fewer games than the Aces.
Mazzolini’s fingerprints were all over the win.
Besides his assist, he scored the opening goal of the game, striking one second after a Bakersfield power play expired six minutes into the second period.
Bakersfield’s Jacob Legace tried to stick-handle at the Aces’ blue line, but Alaska winger Jordan Kremyr poked the puck up the middle into the neutral zone. Mazzolini out-raced former Aces defenseman T.J. Fast, who was toward the end of a shift, maneuvered around Stewart and roofed a back-hander for his team-leading 32nd goal.
Mazzolini’s 32-28—60 totals in 58 games raised him into a tie for fourth in the league scoring race. His 32 goals rank second on the circuit.
“Mazz is good every night,’’ said Aces coach Rob Murray.
After burying Bakersfield (18-38-5) with four first-period goals on the way to a 5-1 win Thursday, the Aces faced a more determined opponent in the rematch. Of course, the Condors, who have lost four straight, have the league’s worst record and any chance of making the playoffs is slipping away fast.
“They played with urgency tonight,’’ Murray said. “You let a team hang around, and history shows it’s a (tying) goal like that, a bad turnover.
“But we were resilient, played under some adversity like we haven’t in a while.’’
Shuffling the deck
Nunn’s goal was his career-high 16th and also marked his 44th point, which ties his career high. He hit both previous highs last season.
The Condors received just one power play and the Aces killed it to give their league-leading, penalty-killing crew 30 consecutive kills over the last eight-plus games.
Bakersfield forward Evan Trupp of Anchorage entered the series with points in all six of his career games against Alaska, but has been held off the score sheet in the first two games of the three-game series and gone minus-4.
Stewart, who came on in relief of former UAF goaltender Scott Greenham in Alaska’s 5-1 win Thursday, has stopped 73 of 76 shots (.961 save percentage) in the last two games.
The Aces improved to 29-0-5 when scoring first, which marks them as the only team in the 23-team league that has not lost in regulation when scoring first. Alaska also improved to 28-0-2 when leading after two periods.
The teams have Saturday off — UAA and UAF play Game 2 of the annual Governor’s Cup at Sullivan — and wrap their three-game series with a Sunday matinee at 3:05 p.m.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com or call him at 257-4335.
Bakersfield 0 0 1 — 1
Aces 0 1 1 — 2
First Period — None. Penalties — Legace, Bakersfield (holding), 14:41; Enders, Bakersfield (roughing), 19:31.
Second Period — 1, Aces, Mazzolini 32 (Kremyr), 6:05. Penalties — Clackson, Aces (interference), 4:04.
Third Period — 2, Bakersfield, Maxwell 3, 6:41; 3, Aces, Nunn 16 (Mazzolini, Skelly), 12:48. Penalties — Kroger, Bakersfield (tripping), 7:58.
Shots on goal — Bakersfield 7-7-9—23. Aces 11-18-16—45.
Power-play Opportunities — Bakersfield 0 of 1. Aces 0 of 3.
Goalies — Bakersfield, Stewart, 8-21-3 (45 shots-43 saves). Aces, Guggenberger, 22-7-5 (23-22).
A — 4,605 (6,399). T — 2:13.
Referee — Brett Sheva. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.
By DOYLE WOODY