The pivotal moment that sparked the Alaska Aces' escape from playoff elimination with Sunday night's 4-2 road win came long before the scoreboard clock hanging over center ice at Stockton Arena drained to double zeroes.
It came long before Zach Harrison steered the puck into an open Stockton Thunder cage on an empty-net breakaway with just 6.5 seconds left and assured more hockey for his club -- Game 6 drops Tuesday night at Sullivan Arena.
It came long before Alex Hudson's third-period strike, which turned into the game-winning goal in Game 5; it came long before Gerald Coleman (23 saves) delivered a couple of monumental saves, one with his paddle down along his goal line, with the game hanging in the balance; and it came long before Alexandre Imbeault's wicked wrister early in the third period furnished the Aces their first lead of the evening.
Instead, the tide-turning, momentum-shifting moment -- and it isn't hockey hyperbole to call it season-saving -- came as that scoreboard clock nearly reached the double zeroes and announced the end of the second period.
Time was running out on the middle period and Stockton led 1-0 courtesy of Maxime Boisclair's power-play goal just 100 seconds earlier when Aces center Nick Mazzolini authored his team's most critical goal of the season.
Mazzolini ended a chaotic sequence -- the Stockton slot was a madhouse with both teams trying to get to the puck -- by cranking a rebound shot past Olivier Roy (26 saves) with less than one second left before intermission.
Mazzolini's goal didn't simply forge a 1-1 tie. It also dramatically changed the tone of Game 5 in the ECHL's Western Conference semifinals, and served as the kick-starter that buoyed the Aces, ignited their strong third period and led to Stockton's first home-ice loss in this postseason.
"It was huge,'' Aces captain Steve Ward said by cellphone. "They made us pay on their power play, and we had a couple of whacks at it, and it seemed like they were going to be able to clear the puck.
"And then Mazz comes out with it. All series, we haven't been able to get a greasy one and he gets it through a couple of guys to the back of the net. I didn't even realize how little time was left until the horn blew.
"Wow -- that was a big goal. It was good for the confidence to get rewarded. We've had to work for everything we've got in this series.''
Aces coach Rob Murray said Mazzolini's goal undoubtedly changed the mood in the visiting dressing room after two periods.
"They score late, and you're wondering how you're going to mount a comeback, and to answer right away was spectacular,'' Murray said. "The feeling in the locker room between periods -- after Mazz scored, as opposed to being down 1-0 -- it's night and day.''
Still, the Aces face elimination again soon enough -- and, for what it's worth, only four teams in 24 previous ECHL playoff springs have roared back from a deficit as deep as 3-1 to win a series.
Stockton owns a 3-2 lead in this best-of-7 series that heads back north, where an Aces victory Tuesday would necessitate Game 7 Wednesday night at Sullivan.
After the Aces won the series opener, 5-2, at Sullivan, Stockton roared back to take Game 2, 5-3 at Sullivan -- so, the Thunder have reason to believe heading into Game 6.
And although the Aces are only 2-2 on home ice in these playoffs, they can glean confidence for their regular-season record of 26-8-2 at Sullivan, which tied for the best home-ice mark on the 23-team circuit.
Sunday, the Aces and Thunder made it through nearly two periods scoreless, in large part because each team's penalty-killing units lorded over opposing power plays.
It wasn't that the power-play units simply weren't scoring, it was that they were so thoroughly flummoxed by their antagonists they barely even generated quality chances. That was especially true of the Aces, who on an early third-period power play could not even manage to get the puck into the Thunder zone to set up.
In any event, Stockton was 0 for 5 on the power play Sunday -- and 0 for 20 in the series -- when it received another chance late in the second period, when referee Tom Chmielewski whistled a dubious interference call against Aces winger Chris Clackson.
Boisclair one-timed Ryan Hayes' feed into the slot past Coleman on the glove side to mark the first time all series Stockton opened the scoring.
But Mazzolini soon racked the equalizer. That marked the first time this postseason the 36-goal scorer in the regular season scored in back-to-back games, and it set the stage for the third period.
Less than seven minutes into the period, Imbeault corraled a pass in the high slot, took a couple of strides and unleashed a wrister that beat Roy where masked men are vulnerable -- just over the elbow of his glove arm -- and generated a 2-1 Aces lead.
With about three minutes to go, Bobby Hughes (two assists) got the puck to Hudson on the left wing and his wrist shot off the rush, from atop the left circle, beat Roy in the exact same spot as Imbeault to boost the lead to 3-1.
That cushion proved valuable when Stockton coach Matt Thomas pulled Roy for an extra attacker with 2:45 left. Shawn Weller's extra-attacker goal, off another Hayes feed from behind the cage, slashed the Aces' lead to 3-2.
Harrison, though, guaranteed more hockey for the Aces with his third empty-net goal of the playoffs.
Shuffling the deck
Hughes, with his 9-7--16 totals in 10 games, leads all playoff scorers in goals and points.
Harrison (7-5--12) is tied for fourth in goals and seventh in points.
Alaska's penalty-killing unit, which led the league in the regular season with 87.4-percent efficiency, has killed 37 of 39 opposing power plays in the playoffs for 94.9-percent efficiency. That ranks second in the playoffs behind Ontario (96.7 percent).
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces 0 1 3 -- 4
Stockton 0 1 1 -- 2
First Period -- None. Penalties -- Mele, Aces (boarding), 4:08; Mazzolini, Aces, double-minor (high-sticking), 6:00; Hunt, Stockton (goaltender interference), 8:22; Bergland, Stockton (interference), 13:45; Hudson, Aces (holding), 16:24.
Second Period -- 1, Stockton, Boisclair 2 (Hayes, Hunter), 18:19 (pp); 2, Aces, Mazzolini 3 (), 19:59. Penalties -- Pokulok, Stockton (holding), 5:15; Aces bench minor, served by Mele (too many men), 8:40; Hayes, Stockton (cross-checking), 10:22; Clackson, Aces (interference), 17:15.
Third Period -- 3, Aces, Imbeault 3 (Syvret, Harrison), 6:26; 4, Aces, Hudson 4 (Hughes), 16:58; 5, Stockton, Weller 6 (Hayes, Reed), 18:23 (ea); 6, Aces Harrison 7, 19:53 (en). Penalties -- Pokulok, Stockton (charging), :56.
Shots on goal -- Aces 9-16-5--30. Stockton 5-12-8--25.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 0 of 5. Stockton 1 of 6.
Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 4-4 (25 shots-23 saves). Stockton, Roy, 7-5 (29-26).
A -- 4,327 (9,737). T -- 2:25.
Referee -- Tom Chmielewski. Linesmen -- Brett Martin, Shaun Morgan.
Minnesota at Chicago, 4 p.m.
Los Angeles at St. Louis, 4 p.m.
Detroit at Anaheim, 6:30 p.m.
Toronto at Boston, 3 p.m.
New York Islanders at Pittsburgh, 3:30 p.m.
San Jose at Vancouver, 6:30 p.m.
Ottawa at Montreal, 3 p.m.
New York Rangers at Washington, 3:30 p.m.
Los Angeles at St. Louis, 5:30 p.m.
Detroit at Anaheim, 6 p.m.
By DOYLE WOODY