Plenty of heavy lifting still awaits the Alaska Aces, though they now face that labor in friendly, familiar surroundings.
After avoiding ECHL playoff elimination with Sunday night's 4-2 win at Stockton in Game 5 of the best-of-7 Western Conference semifinal series, the Aces on Tuesday night entertain the Thunder in Game 6 at Sullivan Arena.
Only four times in the league's 25-season history has a team escaped a 3-1 series deficit, like the one the Aces confronted Sunday, and won three consecutive games to seize the series.
For what it's worth, three of those comeback clubs took the path the Aces are trying to negotiate -- a Game 5 road win followed by two home wins.
If the Aces win Game 6, Game 7 would be Wednesday night at Sullivan.
Yet, home ice doesn't necessarily tilt the ice heavily in Alaska's favor. After all, Stockton won Game 2 in Anchorage.
"We should feel confident coming home, but, saying that, we can't expect it to be easy,'' said Aces coach Rob Murray. "We have to expect to battle as hard as we did (Sunday).''
Aces captain Steve Ward said getting back to home ice is appealing in an exhausting series -- Monday was a travel day after the teams played three games in four nights at Stockton Arena.
"It's still do or die,'' Ward said. "It's going to be exciting to go back to the Sully. Hopefully, we can get the place bumping and get on them early, and then we'll see what happens.
"We've got to be ready to go. With the quick turnaround, we'll have to feed off the fans.''
The Aces trailed late in the second period of Game 5 after Stockton's Maxime Boisclair struck on the power play less than two minutes before intermission. But Aces center Nick Mazzolini generated the equalizer with less than one second remaining in the period, scoring through traffic in front of the Thunder net. That goal marked Mazzolini's second in two games and hinted the Aces' regular-season scoring leader is working his way out of a playoff slump.
"There weren't a lot of open spaces,'' Mazzolini said of his goal. "I'm hoping it's a sign things are starting to turn around.''
Mazzolini, of Anchorage, said he's eager to play again on home ice, where friends and family are always present.
"It's a big boost going back home,'' he said. "(Murray) gave us a great speech, saying, 'Play for someone who's in your heart.' I've got the luxury of doing that every night.''
Shuffling the deck
The Aces are 2-2 on the road in the playoffs, splitting games with both San Francisco in the first round and Stockton in this series.
Stockton is 1-4 on the road in the playoffs. The Thunder lost all three of their first-round games at Las Vegas and split games at Sullivan.
Both teams no doubt would like much more out of their power-play units. Stockton is just 1 for 21 (4.8-percent efficiency) in the series and 3 for 45 (6.7 percent) in the playoffs. Alaska is just 2 for 19 (10.5 percent) in the series and 7 for 44 (15.9 percent) in the playoffs.
In Game 5 Sunday, the Aces struggled to even get the puck into the Thunder zone and set up, getting stymied time and again when they tried to enter the Stockton zone. Part of the problem, Murray said, is the Aces are consistently losing face-offs, which allows Stockton to clear the puck the length of the ice, which eats up Alaska's power-play time and makes it come up the entire rink.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
ECHL Western Conference semifinals
Best of 7
Stockton leads series 3-2
GAME 6: TUESDAY, SULLIVAN ARENA, 7:15 P.M.
RADIO: LIVE, AM-750 AND FM-103.7 KFQD
By DOYLE WOODY