The Alaska Aces faced a prolonged two-man disadvantage against the Bakersfield Condors on Sunday afternoon — and 84 seconds rates as an eternity in that circumstance — yet they did not surrender a shot on goal in that stretch.
Protecting a one-goal lead deep in the third period, the Aces stared down another Condors power play, and again they did not permit a single shot on goal.
Alaska’s league-leading, penalty-killing crew has snuffed 34 straight opposing power plays in the last nine-plus hockey games and was instrumental in the 3-0 matinee victory over Bakersfield that completed a sweep of the three-game series at Sullivan Arena.
Alaska leads the 23-team circuit in penalty killing, dismissing 87.3 percent of opposing power-play chances. In nine previous ECHL seasons, the Aces have twice led the league in penalty killing, have twice finished second and seven times finished among the top five teams in the league in that regard.
So, to a large degree, this season’s effort in general, and Sunday in particular — the Aces (43-12-6) killed four Condors (18-39-5) power plays — represents more of the same.
“We’re just in synch right now,’’ said Aces defenseman Kane Lafranchise. “Everybody’s doing the job and doing their work, and it’s so much about work.
“One of the best things you can do in a hockey game to get guys up on the bench and to take momentum is to kill a penalty.’’
During that 5-on-3 Bakersfield power play with the game scoreless in the first period — and after Condors coach Matt O’Dette burned his timeout to play the two-man advantage — Aces center Nick Mazzolini used his long reach to deflect a pass out of his zone. Lafranchise blocked a shot and cleared the puck from the zone. And defenseman Chris Haltigin likewise blocked a shot and cleared the zone.
On that third period Bakersfield power play, when the Aces held a 1-0 lead courtesy of Alexandre Imbeault’s second-period goal, Zach Harrison mucked along the boards and carried the puck out of the zone. Jordan Kremyr tipped a pass out to neutral ice. Mazzolini killed time grinding on the end boards in Bakersfield’s zone. B.J. Crum broke up a Condors entry at the Aces blue line. And Lafranchise and Bobby Hughes combined for a clearance.
Killing penalties, Kremyr said, is about pure labor and an unwillingness to take shortcuts.
“(Aces coach Rob Murray) is a fanatic when it comes to details, and if there’s one part of the game that’s about details, it’s the PK,’’ Kremyr said. “It’s important to stay in lanes – passing lanes, shooting lanes – and that’s all about out-working the power play.’’
Aces assistant coach Scott Burt, who was an elite penalty-killing forward in his playing days for the club, said prospering when down a man requires keeping opponents to the outside, anticipating the play, pressuring the opponent when the opportunity arises, and pure pride. Those things, and the willingness to step in front of a 90 mph shot.
“Sometimes, when you’re not a power-play guy and you want more ice time, you sacrifice on the PK,’’ Burt said. “In my career, toward the end, blocking a shot was like scoring a goal.’’
One other critical element to penalty killing: Elite goaltending. Though Gerald Coleman faced just 20 shots in picking up his second shutout in his last three starts — he admitted Sunday’s work-load was seriously light — the old bromide is that a team’s best penalty-killer is its masked man.
Nor does it hurt that the Aces take very few penalties — opponents average just 4.11 power-play chances per game. That allows Murray to sometimes use just four penalty-killing forwards — Sunday, they were Mazzolini, Kremyr, Harrison and Hughes – without fear of exhausting them with too much ice time.
After the Aces killed that Bakersfield power play in the third period, slightly more than four minutes remained in regulation. On the ensuring shift, Alex Hudson tipped Chris Clackson’s pass and his deflection squeezed through Brian Stewart (40 saves) for a 2-0 lead. Spencer Bennett scored off a Hughes pass to finish off the Condors, who despite being last overall in the league were shut out for the first time all season.
And that bagel the Aces fed the Condors, which marked Alaska’s fifth shutout win this season, was as much a product of exceptional penalty-killing as anything.
“It’s huge,’’ Murray said. “You can’t discount the fact that if you’re going to kill penalties as well as we do, it helps out in the long run.’’
Shuffling the deck
Throughout their 10 seasons in the ECHL, the Alaska Aces have routinely excelled at killing penalties, leading the league in that category twice in the previous nine seasons and three times finishing second. The Aces currently lead the 23-team circuit in penalty killing. Here’s how they’ve done in their top penalty-killing seasons:
Season PK Rank Efficiency
2012-13 1st 87.3 percent
2011-12 2nd 85.7 percent
2008-09 1st 89.3 percent
2006-07 2nd 86.8 percent
2005-06 1st 87.6 percent
2004-05 2nd 87.7 percent
The Aces have won four straight games and earned at least one point in 16 of their last 17 games.
The Aces own more wins (43) than the Condors do points (41).
Stewart was tremendous in the series. In three games — two starts and a two-period relief job in the series opener — he stopped 113 of 119 shots for a .950 save percentage.
The Aces have surrendered just two goals in the last four games. In their last 13 games, only once have they permitted an opponent more than two goals.
Alaska registered 43 or more shots in all three games in the series and outshot Bakersfield by a combined 136-74.
Aces captain Steve Ward missed the game with illness, giving the team just five defensemen.
The Aces own a league-leading 92 points in 61 games. Ontario is second overall with 86 points in 60 games and Idaho is third with 81 points in 59 games.
Alaska opens a three-game series in San Francisco on Wednesday night.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com or call him at 257-4335.
Bakersfield 0 0 0 — 0
Aces 0 1 2 — 3
First Period — None. Penalties — Trupp, Bakersfield (tripping), 11:13; Bennett, Aces (tripping), 14:34; Molle, Aces (tripping), 15:11; Clackson, Aces (cross-checking), 19:26.
Second Period — 1, Aces, Imbeault 16 (Skelly, Mazzolini), 11:42. Penalties — None.
Third Period — 2, Aces, Hudson 9 (Clackson), 16:07; 3, Aces, Bennett 7 (Hughes, Imbeault), 17:16. Penalties — Trupp, Bakersfield (tripping), 3:30; Haltigin, Aces (tripping), 13:47.
Shots on goal — Bakersfield 9-3-8—20. Aces 10-16-17—43.
Power-play Opportunities — Bakersfield 0 of 4. Aces 0 of 2.
Goalies — Bakersfield, Stewart, 8-22-3 (43 shots-40 saves). Aces, Coleman, 20-4-1 (20-20).
A – 5,126 (6,399). T — 2:15.
Referee – Brett Sheva. Linesmen – Scott Sivulich, Steve Glines.
By DOYLE WOODY