After dictating terms throughout Thursday night’s 3-2 road win over the San Francisco Bulls, the Alaska Aces only negotiated dicey territory in the final 36.8 seconds.
Protecting a one-goal lead with defenseman B.J. Crum in the penalty box and Bulls goaltender Tyler Beskorowany off for a sixth attacker, Aces goaltender Olivier Roy and his teammates fended off one last frantic flurry from a San Francisco team enjoying a two-man advantage.
In that sequence, Roy denied Dale Mitchell’s bid and his penalty-killing crew blocked three shots, none more pivotal than the Steven Tarasuk shot that Aces winger Ross Ring-Jarvi blocked just before the buzzer.
“We held the fort,’’ Aces coach Rob Murray said by cellphone.
That wasn’t unexpected from a hockey team that entered the evening at the Cow Palace as the second-stingiest club on the ECHL’s 22-team circuit.
What wasn’t expected, though, was that the defense that limited the Bulls to just 20 shots — Alaska entered permitting a league-low 24.27 shots per game — also spearheaded the Aces’ offense.
Defenseman James Martin racked his first goal in 28 games this season, blueliner Dustin Molle scored to continue his breakout season and defenseman Brad Richard delivered the headman pass that sprung Mathew Sisca for a breakaway goal that became the eventual game winner.
With the victory in the opener of a three-game series played before a friends-and-family, announced crowd of just 1,214, Alaska (20-9-2) stretched its string of games unbeaten in regulation to three (2-0-1). The Aces also leapfrogged Colorado and moved into first place in the Mountain Division.
Martin’s wrister through traffic midway through the first period opened the scoring, though the Bulls forged the equalizer on Dean Ouellet’s deflection of Brett Findlay’s shot late in the first period.
The second period belonged to the Aces, with Molle and Sisca striking in a span of 2:41 late in the period to furnish the visitors a 3-1 cushion.
Molle, of Anchorage, is a prototypical stay-at-home defenseman, big (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) and rugged. In 111 games in Division I college (UAA briefly, then UAF), he generated 2-8—10 totals for a humble average of .09 points per game. In his first three seasons as a pro in the Central Hockey League and ECHL, he earned 2-16—18 totals in 132 games for a modest average of .14 points per game. In 30 games this season, though, he already has contributed 3-7—10 totals for .33 points per game.
Molle scored on a backhander after taking a cross-ice feed from winger Evan Trupp, who also assisted on Martin’s goal.
Offense has always been heavy on Richard’s resume, dating back his Division III days. He can struggle defending in his own zone, but he’s a playmaker, as evidenced by his 2-13—15 totals in 24 games with the Aces. After the Bulls hemmed the Aces in their own zone for a lengthy shift, Richard relieved the pressure by finding Sisca for a breakaway. Sisca beat Beskorowany to the blocker side.
Yet San Francisco (12-18-5), which entered with the league’s second-worst, home-ice winning percentage (.321), pulled within a goal at 3-2 early in the third period when Tarasuk’s shot banked off the skate of Aces defenseman Drew MacKenzie and past Roy.
The Aces didn’t receive a power play through two periods, the deepest they’ve gone into a game this season without the luxury of a man advantage. They enjoyed four power plays in the third period, including a two-man advantage that lasted 87 seconds — Bulls captain Scott Langdon was booked for three infractions in a span of less than 12 minutes — but came up empty.
That inability to pad the lead put the Aces in a precarious situation when Crum was sentenced to the penalty box. Of course, the Bulls have not proved dynamic on the power play on their home ice — after going 0 for 3 Thursday, they have converted on just 10.1 percent of power plays at home.
On a night when they never trailed, the Aces were likely helped by the tiny crowd, which couldn’t do much to rev up the home side.
“We kept all 1,200 people out of it,’’ Murray said, deadpan. “There weren’t 1,200 people there. I counted 41 people in warm-ups — no, really, I counted — and that included Ben Parker, our healthy scratch.’’
Shuffling the deck
Murray said veteran goaltender Gerald Coleman, who has yet to play this season after offseason hip surgery, will make his debut Friday night.
“I’m cautiously optimistic he’ll be OK,’’ Murray said. “I won’t be surprised if he’s a bit rusty.’’
With alternate captain Jordan Kremyr promoted to Abbotsford of the American Hockey League and alternate captain Brendan Connolly still sidelined with facial injuries, MacKenzie and winger David Eddy each wore an “A.’’
The Aces improved to 9-5-1 on the road. They’ve gone 2-0-1 in their last three road games.
Winger Peter Sivak, who began his North American career last season with San Francisco, was back in the Aces’ lineup after missing one game with injury. He fired a game-high six shots on goal.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces1 2 0 — 3
SF1 0 1 — 2
First Period — 1, Aces, Martin 1 (Mele, Trupp), 8:03; 2, SF, Ouellet 7 (Findlay, Mitchell), 16:51. Penalties — Mele, Aces (boarding), 2:36; Coffman, Aces (tripping), 5:31.
Second Period — 3, Aces, Molle 3 (Trupp, Ring-Jarvi), 15:02; 4, Aces, Sisca 8 (Richard), 17:43. Penalties — None.
Third Period — 5, SF, Tarasuk 3 (Brace), 4:37. Penalties — Langdon, SF (slashing), 1:44; Langdon, SF (kneeing), 10:14; Mitchell, SF (hooking), 10:47; Langdon, SF (interference), 16:30; Crum, Aces (boarding), 19:23.
Shots on goal — Aces 11-14-11—36. SF 7-7-6—20.
Power-play Opportunities — Aces 0 of 4. SF 0 of 3.
Goalies — Aces, Roy, 10-6-0 (20 shots-18 saves). SF, Beskorowany, 11-11-3 (36-33).
A — 1,214 (6,725).
Referee — Dan Dreger. Linesmen — Steven Walsh, Brett Martin.
By DOYLE WOODY