Overtime defeat always aches, and never more so for the Alaska Aces than Tuesday night, when their hockey season ended — agonizingly, excruciatingly — in the crucible that is sudden death.
It wasn’t just that the decisive strike from Stockton defenseman Nik Pokulok pierced the Aces so profoundly in the Thunder’s 4-3 victory at Sullivan Arena and lifted the visitors into the ECHL’s Western Conference finals by capturing the best-of-7 semifinal series in six games.
Adding depth to the Aces’ despair was that they surrendered the game-tying goal with a mere five seconds left in regulation, that they gave up a goal with .2 of a second left in the first period that energized the Thunder, and that they enjoyed a couple of precious scoring chances early in overtime.
Instead of forcing Game 7, the only thing in front of the Aces is the offseason.
“Cruel, cruel way to end it,’’ said Aces captain Steve Ward.
Stockton never led until Pokulok joined the rush seconds after an Aces odd-man rush went for naught and tapped Shawn Weller’s cross-ice feed to the left post behind Gerald Coleman (33 saves) at 7 minutes, 13 seconds of OT.
But that’s how the Thunder have rolled through two rounds of the Kelly Cup playoffs — undaunted in difficult situations, merrily embracing their identity as the Comeback Kids.
Seven of Stockton’s eight playoff wins have come in comebacks — all four wins against the Aces and three in the first round against Las Vegas — and the Thunder are 4-0 in overtime.
Tuesday’s drama marked Stockton’s 10th straight overtime win under bench boss Matt Thomas, whose club opens the conference finals Friday night on the road against the Idaho Steelheads. Still, he is not certain “team of destiny’’ is a precise description of his club.
“It’s hard not to think that, but here’s the reality — we’ve had to earn it, we’ve scratched and clawed, with guys hurt and guys out of the lineup,’’ Thomas said. “Here’s one thing: I made the best choice for our captain.
“Garet Hunt gets this team motivated, excited to play. And there he was, digging out a puck for the goal with five seconds left in regulation.
“Give the Aces credit — they kicked our asses at times tonight. I can’t believe we won. But there’s no quit in this group. Sometimes in life, things just happen to you. Scary thing — we’ve got to go through this again to get where we want to be.’’
That would be the Kelly Cup Finals, which likewise was Alaska’s ambition after winning the Brabham Cup as the circuit’s best team in the regular season and dispatching San Francisco in five games in the first round.
“We had a great team — that’s the tough part,’’ Coleman said. “But we put ourselves in a hole and, at the end of the day, it’s our fault. Every once in a while you run into a team like that, where everything goes their way.’’
After the Aces rocketed to a 2-0 lead inside the opening seven minutes, courtesy of goals from Evan Trupp and Chris Clackson, they killed off three consecutive first-period penalties to defensemen.
But Stockton’s Harrison Reed scored on the power play with less than one second left — he wired a shot from the left circle — to cut Alaska’s lead to 2-1 heading into the first intermission.
That goal was reminiscent of the one Aces center Nick Mazzolini scored with less than one second to go in the second period Sunday night in Stockton to bag the Aces a 1-1 tie in a game they won 4-2 to stay alive and force Tuesday’s Game 6.
Stockton’s Ryan Hayes redirected Andrew Clark’s centering pass through Coleman in the second period to rack a 2-2 tie that carried into the second break.
Still, the Aces put themselves in prime position late in regulation. After defenseman Kane Lafranchise’s shot from the right point, off Bobby Hughes’ faceoff win hit traffic, sending the puck airborne, rookie winger Andy Taranto gloved the puck to the ice and beat Olivier Roy (30 saves) with a right-circle wrister to furnish Alaska a 3-2 lead with 2:36 to go.
That delighted the roaring, announced crowd of 4,868, but the Thunder have proved remarkably resilient.
Even though Stockton was unable to get Roy to the bench for an extra attacker until less than 15 seconds remained in regulation, the Thunder delivered the equalizer in the waning seconds. Coleman stopped Reed’s blast from the center point, but as Aces center Zach Harrison tried to clear the bouncing puck from danger, he couldn’t make solid contact. Clark got inside position on Aces defenseman Brett Ponich and banged the rebound past Coleman.
Yet again, the Thunder generated another rink resurrection.
“Honestly, three words — passion, heart and character — on this team,’’ Hunt said. “We can look around the locker room and know guys will have those three things every night.’’
For the Aces, Clark’s stunner was yet another body shot.
“It was kind of like that the whole series,’’ Taranto said. “We’d press and get the lead, let off the gas for a second and the puck was in the back of our net. It’s a sickening feeling when that happens.’’
In the first two minutes of overtime, Roy got the tip of his catching glove on Clackson’s bullet of a wrister from the slot and again got a piece of his mitt on Harrison’s bid from the slot.
Soon, Pokulok, a rookie out of Clarkson University who scored just five goals in 133 career games, struck to send the Thunder into the conference finals and the Aces into an off-season filled with thoughts of what might have been.
“Tough one,’’ Lafranchise said. “Proud of everyone. Everyone put in a great effort.
“I do believe we deserved a better fate, but that’s how the bounces go sometimes.’’
Shuffling the deck
Despite generating just 19 shots on goal, the Idaho Steelheads won 5-3 at Ontario on Tuesday night to eliminate the Reign in six games of a Western Conference semifinal series and advance to the conference finals against Stockton.
The Cincinnati Cyclones advanced to the Eastern Conference finals with a 5-3 win over the Gwinnett Gladiators to win that best-of-7 series, 4-2.
Cincy will face the winner of Wednesday’s Game 7 between the Reading Royals and defending champion Florida Everblades. Florida used goals 90 apart from Adam Brace and Leigh Salters midway through the third period to win Tuesday’s Game 6, 2-1, at Reading.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Stockton 1 1 1 1 — 4
Aces 2 0 1 0 — 3
First Period — 1, Aces, Trupp 2 (Nunn, Ward), 4:00; 2, Aces, Clackson 3 (Harrison, Hudson), 6:41; 3, Stockton, Reed 3 (Little, Clark), 19:59 (pp). Penalties — Curry, Aces (high-sticking), 7:45; Ward, Aces (delay of game, puck over glass), 9:19; Lafranchise, Aces (cross-checking), 9:37; Hunt, Stockton, served by Hayes (roughing), 12:56; Mazzolini, Aces (slashing), 19:13.
Second Period — 4, Stockton, Hayes 5 (Clark, Boutin), 8:06. Penalties — Gorham, Aces (hooking), 4:33; Weller, Stockton (tripping), 12:45; Ponich, Aces (roughing), 18:27.
Third Period — 5, Aces, Taranto 3 (Lafranchise, Hughes), 17:24; 6, Stockton, Clark 4 (Reed, Reber), 19:55 (ea). Penalties — None.
Overtime — 7, Stockton, Pokulok 2 (Weller, Boisclair), 7:13. Penalties — None.
Shots on goal — Stockton 9-16-8-4—37. Aces 12-8-8-5—33.
Power-play Opportunities — Stockton 1 of 6. Aces 0 of 2.
Goalies — Stockton, Roy, 8-5 (33 shots-30saves). Aces, Coleman, 4-5 (37-33).
A — 4,868 (6,399). T — 2:54.
Referee — Ryan Murphy. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.
By DOYLE WOODY