The grind of the ECHL's 72-game regular season closed Saturday night for the Alaska Aces, who prepped for the postseason grind by generating a 4-3 road win over the Ontario Reign in California.
Alaska's win in its regular-season finale gave the minor-league hockey circuit's regular-season champion a 49-15-8 record worth 106 points, the second-most in the franchise's 10 ECHL seasons. That total was surpassed only by the 113 points the 2005-06 team racked on the way to lifting the Kelly Cup.
Still, the Aces with Saturday's win topped the 2005-06 team in road points, going 23-7-6 in hostile rinks for 52 points, one more than the 2005-06 club.
The Aces open the playoffs Friday at Sullivan Arena, where they entertain San Francisco in Game 1 of a best-of-7 series. The Reign open much sooner, entertaining Utah on Tuesday night in Game 1 of that best-of-7 series.
While Saturday's game before a sellout crowd of 9,616 at Citizens Business Bank Arena was the regular-season finale for both clubs, it played out like a playoff game -- close and bitter.
The teams combined for 76 penalty minutes, three fights, an abundance of post-whistle skirmishes and plenty of hurt feelings.
That animosity carried into the last minute, when the Aces were protecting a 4-3 lead and the Reign, already with a man advantage, pulled goaltender Jean-Francois Berube for a two-man advantage. Aces goaltender Mark Guggenberger (35 saves) and Reign rookie forward Mario Lamoureux traded chirps and shoves.
The game was tied 2-2 deep into the second period when Aces winger Tommy Mele banged home a Chris Clackson rebound for a 3-2 advantage. Alaska captain Steve Ward pushed the cushion to 4-2 early in the third period when he roofed a shot on Berube -- former UAF winger Andy Taranto assisted on the strike for his first pro point -- and that came in handy when Ontario defenseman Matthew Clune scored midway through the third period. Ward's goal was his first of the season.
Alaska got off to a strong start courtesy of center Zach Harrison, who struck twice inside the opening 10 minutes.
Harrison scored on a power-play rush just three minutes into the game and later scored off a Garry Nunn feed after Berube committed a turnover.
But the Reign (46-19-7) countered in short order with Jake Hauswirth's goal during a two-man advantage and Cameron Burt's goal late in the period to forge a 2-2 tie that carried into the first intermission.
The only way the Aces and Reign can meet again this season is if both advance to the Western Conference finals, which serves as the third of four playoff rounds in the Kelly Cup playoffs.
If the clubs meet again, they'll presumably know to buckle those chin straps tight.
Shuffling the deck
Aces defenseman Kane Lafranchise was held out of the lineup to rest for the playoffs.
With winger Jordan Kremyr out indefinitely with a broken wrist, the Aces finished the injury-riddled regular season with 21 different players missing an unofficial total of 334 games because of injuries. In five previous seasons, the most Aces games missed to injury came in 2008-09, when injuries cost the club 240 games.
Aces leading scorer Nick Mazzolini, who stayed behind in Anchorage this weekend to rest for the playoffs, finished tied for second in league goal scoring with 36. The crown went to Florida's Mathieu Roy, who scored twice Saturday to finish with 38 goals. He also won the points title with 38-51--89 totals in 69 games, all the more impressive considering that in five previous ECHL seasons, Roy's career highs in goals (22), assists (28) and points (46) didn't foreshadow this season's outburst in all categories.
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Aces 2 1 1 -- 4
Ontario 2 0 1 -- 3
First Period -- 1, Aces, Harrison 13 (Curry), 3:23 (pp); 2, Aces, Harrison 14 (Nunn), 9:49; 3, Ontario, Hauswirth 1 (Ebert, Register), 12:25 (pp); 4, Ontario, Burt 2 (Couture, Lamoureux), 17:43. Penalties -- Van de Mosselaer, Ontario (slashing), 3:05; Mele, Aces (slashing), 5:49; Couture, Ontario, major (fighting), 5:49; Clackson, Aces, major (fighting), 5:49; Curry, Aces (roughing), 6:04; Curry, Aces (high-sticking), 10:39; Crum, Aces (slashing), 11:56; Calla, Ontario (boarding), 14:31; Calla, Ontario, major (fighting), 14:39; Hudson, Aces, major (fighting), 14:39; Van de Mosselaer, Ontario (unsportsmanlike conduct), 19:42; Clackson, Aces (unsportsmanlike conduct), 19:42.
Second Period -- 5, Aces, Mele 11 (Clackson, Bennett), 14:59. Penalties -- King, Ontario, minor-major, served by Kraemer (charging, fighting), 12:17; Ponich, Aces, major (fighting), 12:17; Ebert, Ontario (boarding), 15:41.
Third Period -- 6, Aces, Ward 1 (Taranto, Hudson), 2:21; 7, Ontario, Clune 2 (Stretch, Estrada), 11:03. Penalties -- Burt, Ontario (unsportsmanlike conduct), 1:53; Mele, Aces (unsportsmanlike conduct), 1:53; Hall, Aces (tripping), 4:41; Hudson, Aces (roughing), 6:50; Lamoureux, Ontario (boarding), 17:00; Crum, Aces (slashing), 17:59; Lamoureux, Ontario (unsportsmanlike conduct), 19:26; Guggenberger, Aces, minor-misconduct, served by Mele (unsportsmanlike conduct), 19:26.
Shots on goal -- Aces 10-12-12--34. Ontario 11-10-17--38.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 1 of 5. Ontario 1 of 7.
Goalies -- Aces, Guggenberger, 25-8-5 (38 shots-35 saves). Ontario, Berube, 15-6-2 (34-30).
A -- 9,616 (9,616).
Referee -- Marc-Andre Lavoie. Linesmen -- James Parker, Michel Voyer.
By DOYLE WOODY