The difference in the Stockton Thunder's 4-3 ECHL win over the Alaska Aces on Thursday night was fundamental: Power-play production.
Stockton's league-leading power play sizzled.
Alaska's, by comparison, suffered.
Stockton converted three of its four man-advantage chances at Sullivan Arena to mark the first time all season the Aces have surrendered that many power-play goals in a hockey game. Until Thursday, only three times in 45 previous games had the Aces even permitted opponents two power-play goals in a game.
Alaska, meanwhile, came up empty on all four its power plays, including two in the final five minutes, when it trailed 4-3 and hunted for the equalizer.
"They were due some bounces,'' said Aces captain Nick Mazzolini. "A lot of their stuff came off skirmishes. I know on their second goal, it went off my stick, then off the goalie (Gerald Coleman) and right to one of their guys.
"It seemed like the law of averages balancing out.''
Stockton's victory allowed it to salvage something from an unusual five-game series between the clubs - the Aces won the first four games - that was prompted when the San Francisco Bulls folded last month and forced the ECHL to revamp its schedule. Suddenly, what was initially scheduled to be a three-game series ballooned to a five-game set.
The Thunder (23-20-5) received power-play strikes from forwards Nick Larson, Joey Martin and Greg Miller, who along with defensemen Ryan Constant and Lee Baldwin, the former UAA blueliner, were on the ice for all three power-play goals.
"Luckily, it was clicking tonight,'' Miller said. "We started to settle down, move the puck around and use the big (Olympic-sized) ice to our advantage.
"That's what they had been doing this series, so it was nice to give them a taste of their own medicine.''
Even so, the Aces (31-12-3) pushed the Thunder to the final buzzer.
Trailing 4-2, the Aces cut the deficit in half with six minutes to go when Mazzolini and Peter Sivak worked a give-and-go and Mazzolini left Sivak with a tap-in at the right post for his team-leading 19th goal. That goal, and the assists by Mazzolini and linemate Brendan Connolly, gave the Mazzolini line 29 points - 13 goals, 16 assists - in the series.
And although the Aces could not muster the equalizer on two power plays inside the last five minutes, Mazzolini enjoyed a glorious chance to send the game to overtime with just 17.8 seconds left in regulation.
With Aces goaltender Gerald Coleman (21 saves) on the bench for a sixth attacker, defenseman Brad Richard unleashed a slap shot from near the right boards atop the face-off circle. Mazzolini redirected the puck on goal, but Thunder masked man Brian Foster (34 saves) somehow trapped the shot, which was ticketed to go through his pads, beneath his right pad.
"Just a great save,'' Mazzolini said.
The Aces opened the scoring with just 5.4 seconds left in the first period. Defenseman Drew MacKenzie's indirect pass off the right-wing boards sprung Turner Elson and Brett Findlay 2-on-1. Elson flicked a saucer pass over the stick of a Stockton defender and Findlay slid a point-blank shot between Foster's pillows.
Alaska outshot Stockton 14-3 in the opening 20 minutes. After intermission, though, the Thunder looked much livelier and racked three goals in the second period.
"Losing five straight up here is a pretty good motivator, and we didn't want that to happen,'' Miller said.
Stockton answered three minutes into the second period when former UAA winger Mitch Bruijsten cashed in on Miller's 2-on-1 pass and took the lead at 2-1 when Larson, left unattended in the middle of Alaska's penalty-killing box, beat Coleman high to the glove side midway through the period.
Alaska forged a 2-2 tie late in the second period when Evan Trupp trickled a wrister through Foster's pads.
But Martin struck on the power play for Stockton with just 4.4 seconds left in the period for a 3-2 lead and Miller scored on the power play three minutes into the third period to give Stockton a 4-2 lead and its first two-goal cushion of the series.
Stockton went 6 of 19 (31.6-percent efficiency) on the power play in the series to raise its league-leading efficiency to 21.9 percent - the Thunder are the only team on the 21-team circuit above 20 percent.
The Aces remained two points behind the Ontario Reign, who they play on the road Saturday and Sunday before playing at Bakersfield on Monday, for the lead in the Western Conference. Alaska's .707 winning percentage remains tops in the league.
Mazzolini said his near-goal in the waning seconds was indicative of a night when the Aces weren't their sharpest.
"That was a microcosm of the game,'' he said. "We were late with passes, or early. But winning four out of five, you can't be mad.''
Shuffling the deck
Rookie winger Andy Taranto returned to the lineup for the first time since Dec. 4, when he suffered an upper-body injury that forced him to miss 27 consecutive games. He furnished an assist and had three shots on goal, two of which were excellent opportunities, and hit a post.
Center Jordan Kremyr, an alternate captain, sat out the game with an upper-body injury and will not make the three-game road trip to California.
Veteran defenseman Sean Curry returned from his two-game suspension.
The Aces are in the midst of a 16-day span that includes a ridiculous 11 games and two days of travel, to California and back. The Thunder are in the midst of a similarly wicked schedule - eight games in 12 days, with two days of travel, to Alaska and back to California.
Thursday's loss also snapped Coleman's four-game winning streak and a stretch in which he had won seven of eight previous starts. The loss came in Coleman's ninth straight start.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog
Stockton 0 3 1 4
Aces 1 1 1 3
First Period -- 1, Aces, Findlay 11 (Elson, MacKenzie), 19:54. Penalties -- Constant, Stockton (tripping), 4:21; Hunt, Stockton (cross-checking), 10:25; Morrison, Aces (hooking), 14:21.
Second Period -- 2, Stockton, Bruijsten 6 (Miller, Martin), 3:25; 3, Stockton, Larson 3 (Baldwin, Constant), 11:43 (pp); 4, Aces, Trupp 11 (Sisca, Taranto), 18:17; 5, Stockton, Martin 13 (Miller, Constant), 19:55 (pp). Penalties -- Elson, Aces (hooking), 10:37; McKelvie, Aces, major (fighting), 12:24; Hunt, Stockton, major (fighting), 12:24; Findlay, Aces (tripping), 19:35.
Third Period -- 6, Stockton, Miller 16 (Larson, Martin), 3:23 (pp); 7, Aces, Sivak 19 (Mazzolini, Connolly), 13:58. Penalties -- Findlay, Aces (cross-checking), 2:00; Bergland, Stockton (interference), 14:50; Pedan, Stockton (cross-checking), 17:08.
Shots on goal -- Stockton 3-14-8--25. Aces 14-7-16--37.
Power-play Opportunities -- Stockton 3 of 4. Aces 0 of 4.
Goalies -- Stockton, Foster, 5-9-0 (37 shots-34 saves). Aces, Coleman, 8-2-1 (25-21).
A -- 3,586 (6,399). T -- 2:21.
Referee -- Tyler Puddifant. Linesmen -- Scott Sivulich, Travis Jackson.