In recapturing home-ice advantage with Thursday night’s methodical 4-1 road victory over the San Francisco Bulls, the Alaska Aces operated from the same template that allowed them to flourish in hostile hockey rinks all season:
Play with passion tempered by patience, manage the puck smartly, limit the opponent’s opportunities and exploit your own.
That blueprint delivered the ECHL’s best road record in the regular season and it worked splendidly for the Aces in their road playoff debut Thursday. They never trailed in Game 3 and seized a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-7 Western Conference quarterfinal series that resumes Friday night with Game 4 at the Cow Palace.
Mark Guggenberger stopped 21 shots in his playoff debut for the Aces, who received two-point nights from centers Nick Mazzolini (one goal, one assist) and Bobby Hughes (two helpers), and goals from four different guys — Alex Hudson, captain Steve Ward, Mazzolini and Zach Harrison.
“It was pretty solid,’’ Aces coach Rob Murray said by cellphone. “We didn’t wow them, but we were solid defensively, solid in the neutral zone, solid offensively, and we had good zone time.
“Other than (Peter) Sivak’s breakaway, which was just on a bad bounce, I don’t think we gave up an odd-man rush. We were being tenacious and disciplined in the details of the game. When we do that, we’re at our best.’’
Guggenberger’s performance no doubt boosted the postseason confidence of the second-year pro who was voted onto the All-ECHL second team. He was the Central Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year and Most Outstanding Goaltender last season for the Texas Brahmas but was strafed in the playoffs and lost his gig as the No. 1 goalie.
Thursday, he looked sharp from the outset, flashing his right pad to deny that breakaway by Sivak, San Francisco’s leading scorer in the regular season, in the opening minutes of the game. And the only goal Guggenberger surrendered proved a fluke — Jordan Morrison’s third-period centering pass from behind the goal line banked off the skate of Aces defenseman B.J. Crum and in.
“He was solid — really good game,’’ Murray said of Guggenberger, who he lauded for freezing the puck and getting whistles that prevented the Bulls from creating much chaos in his crease. “He kind of diffused any good chances they could have had.’’
Between Gerald Coleman, who shined in Games 1 and 2, and Guggenberger, who Murray said will start Game 4, the Aces have allowed just three goals in three games. The tandem has delivered a .951 save percentage.
Game 3 became a pivotal swing match when San Francisco and Thomas Heemskerk, who made 30 saves Thursday, beat the Aces 1-0 in Game 2 at Sullivan Arena on Saturday night.
Aces captain Steve Ward said he and his teammates didn’t get flustered by being knotted 1-1 in the series entering Game 3.
“That’s one thing we talked about going into the playoffs — you can never get too high or too low,’’ Ward said. “Sometimes, that’s easier said than done. I thought we responded well. We’ve played well on the road all season, so we were a confident bunch.’’
After a scoreless first period, the top-seeded Aces struck for two goals early in the second period against the Bulls, the No. 8 seed among eight Western Conference playoff teams.
Hughes gained the Bulls zone on left wing, cut to the middle of the ice and left a drop pass for Hudson about three minutes into the period, and Hudson beat Heemskerk with a wrister from atop the left circle to give the Aces a 1-0 lead. The Aces have won all four games they have played in the Cow Palace this season, and Hudson has scored a goal in all four.
Less than four minutes after Hudson scored, Mazzolini found Ward with a pass into the slot, and the veteran defenseman flicked a shot off the left post and in for a 2-0 Alaska lead.
Mazzolini pushed the cushion to 3-0 when he roofed a shot over Heemskerk’s shoulder less than seven minutes into the third period. Mazzolini, the Aces’ leading scorer in the regular season, did not have a point in Game 1 or Game 2, which Ward said was not worrisome.
“We knew it would come — it was only a matter of time,’’ Ward said. “He was getting chances’’ — a game-high eight shots on goal in Game 2, for example — “and setting up guys.’’
Morrison’s goal two minutes after Ward’s strike cut Alaska’s lead to 3-1. The Bulls made a push after that, but the Aces withstood it, and Harrison’s empty-net goal off a Hughes feed in the final minute sealed victory.
Shuffling the deck
Aces winger Evan Trupp (one assist), listed at 5-foot-10, 155 pounds, was apparently unhappy with a second-period hit from Bulls winger Kris Belan, 6-2, 200, and fought Belan. That was unusual, because Trupp is a skilled forward and small, and he doesn’t fight much — just one fight all regular season, that one when he was with the Bakersfield Condors. Belan, by contrast, fought 14 times in the regular season.
The Bulls went 0 for 2 on the power play, which leaves them 0 for 12 in the series and just 2 for 50 in 12 total games against the Aces this season. Alaska was 0 for 1 on the power play.
Hudson led all players with six shots on goal, and Harrison launched five. Mazzolini and San Francisco’s Sivak each had four shots on goal. Harrison’s two goals in the series makes him the only player on either team with more than one goal.
All 16 of the Aces skaters were even or plus in the plus-minus column.
Murray said defenseman Kane Lafranchise received stitches below his lower lip after taking a puck to the face early in the third period.
The referee Thursday was Dan Dreger, who only worked one Aces game in the regular season to make him the referee Alaska saw the least during that 72-game journey. Of the 14 referees who worked Aces games in the regular season, the ones the Aces saw most were Geoff Miller, J.M. McNulty and Marc-Andre Lavoie — each worked eight Alaska games.
Two ECHL franchises announced significant moves Thursday.
Bakersfield hired former Idaho bench boss John Olver, who guided the Steelheads to the 2004 Kelly Cup, as their general manager. Olver, who everybody in hockey calls J.O., will be in charge of the search for a new coach — Matt O’Dette was fired after the Condors did not qualify for the playoffs in each of his two seasons — and also be in charge of player personnel.
The Evansville IceMen, who also missed the playoffs, hired former Gwinnett coach Jeff Pyle as their new coach. Pyle coached the Gladiators when they fell to the Aces in five games in the 2006 Kelly Cup Finals.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces 0 2 2 — 4
SF 0 0 1 — 1
First Period — None. Penalties — Hudson, Aces (slashing), 2:54; Trupp, Aces (tripping), 6:14; Langdon, SF (hooking), 10:22; Findlay, SF (roughing), 12:58; Hudson, Aces (roughing), 12:58.
Second Period — 1, Aces, Hudson 1 (Hughes, Hall), 2:58; 2, Aces, Ward 1 (Mazzolini, Trupp), 6:38. Penalties — Belan, SF, major (fighting), 7:13; Trupp, Aces, major (fighting), 7:13.
Third Period — 3, Aces, Mazzolini 1, 6:33; 4, SF, Morrison 1 (Sivak, C. Ouellet), 8:43 (ea); 5, Aces, Harrison 2 (Hughes), 19:41 (en). Penalties — None.
Shots on goal — Aces 9-15-10—34. SF 5-10-7—22.
Power-play Opportunities — Aces 0 of 1. SF 0 of 2.
Goalies — Aces, Guggenberger, 1-0 (22 shots-21 saves). SF, Heemskerk, 1-2 (33-30).
A — 2,276 (8,500). T — 2:22.
Referee — Dan Dreger. Linesmen — Zach Thornton, Brett Martin.
By DOYLE WOODY