The combatants: The top two hockey clubs in the ECHL.
The atmosphere: A ThunderStix-banging, throaty crowd of 5,530 partisans at Sullivan Arena.
The pace and quality of play: Electric and sublime.
The outcome: Alaska Aces 3, Ontario Reign 2.
The takeaway: Hmm, these guys could make for a taut, nasty playoff series — at best, seven savage games.
It’s only late February, granted, but Saturday night’s series finale felt like the postseason — actually, like a game deep into the spring.
“That’s a conference playoff championship game right there,’’ said Aces winger Andy Taranto, who kicked off the third-period comeback with a game-tying, roofed wrister from the slot. “That’s what it felt like.’’
There were big collisions, players throwing their bodies in front of warp-speed shots, post-whistle scrums, ample chirping and the delicious hope these clubs collide come the Kelly Cup playoffs.
And Alaska’s victory wasn’t sealed until Ontario’s Chris Crane whistled a shot from the left point wide of Alex Kangas’ right post, with Ontario counterpart Jussi Olkinuora off for an extra attacker, and the puck rimmed along the boards and out to neutral ice as the horn blew.
Less than six minutes earlier, veteran center Jordan Morrison forged the game-winner, short-handed no less, against one of his six former ECHL employers. That decisive strike came off a helper from captain Nick Mazzolini that was so shifty it was practically worthy of two assists.
Mazzolini collected the puck in his own zone and, frankly, looked a mite gassed. But as he exited his zone, he caught Ontario defenseman Matt Register flat-footed and blew past him, triggering a 2-on-1 with Morrison against Ontario’s Cameron Burt, a defenseman turned center.
Mazzolini hit the top of the right circle on right wing and lifted his blade toward the rafters, as if to unleash a slap shot. That prompted Burt to slide along the ice. Mazzolini promptly slid the puck across to Morrison, who was left with a steering tap-in at the left. Olkinuora was left with no hope.
Mazzolini said he initially intended to simply clear the puck the length of the ice and go off for a line change, but changed his plan once he saw he could steal a march on Register. Suddenly, a center whose skating is rarely the subject of swoons, was off to the races.
“I have deceptive speed,’’ Mazzolini said with a grin. “Once I get going, I go downhill pretty good.’’
For the second time in the three-game series in which Alaska bookended its 6-1 and 3-2 wins around a 5-2 win by Ontario, the league’s top winning percentage switched sides. The Aces (34-15-3) now own the league’s top mark at .683 and the Western Conference-leading Reign (34-15-4) rank second at .676.
That the Aces were in position to prosper late came in large part because the seldom-used Kangas, giving veteran Gerald Coleman and his surgically-repaired hips the night off in the Aces’ 11th game in 16 days, looked like the guy who was the University of Minnesota’s workhorse for three of his four seasons as a Gopher.
Kangas, who entered the game with an 0-2-2 record and an .854 save percentage, made a big save on Tyler Gron less than three minutes into the game and never wavered. He smothered shots to get whistles when he needed and generally steered rebounds to safety.
Kangas stopped 28 shots and the two goals he allowed were hardly his fault.
“Right off the bat, they had one point-blank and I made the save, and that got me into the game right away,’’ Kangas said. “I think it’s the best I’ve felt, and the most comfortable I’ve felt.’’
At the other end, Olkinuora (31 saves), the University of Denver goalie who has looked shaky and entered with an .877 save percentage, matched Kangas. His third-period stop on Taranto on a 2-on-0 with the game tied 2-2 – Olkinuora got a piece of his glove on Taranto’s bid — was wickedly good work.
Other than Taranto’s tying wrist shot from the slot, the other four goals in the game were essentially tap-ins. For the most part in a great game, it seemed only a gimme would get past these goaltenders.
Maxime Kitsyn’s opening goal for the Reign, 62 seconds into the second period, came with a bit of puck luck. Aces defenseman Zach Davies blocked Burt’s 2-on-1 pass, but the puck ricocheted right back to Burt, whose quick pass to Kitsyn left Kangas no chance.
The Aces answered four minutes later on a power play they gained when Kyle Bigos cross-checked Brendan Connolly. Connolly’s retaliation was a point-blank wrister off Mazzolini’s cross-crease pass and a 1-1 tie.
Ontario regained the lead late in the second period when defenseman Adrian Van de Mosselaer joined the rush at the right post and flicked home Kitsyn’s feed.
After that, the league’s best home-ice team scored the final two goals against the league’s best road them. Alaska also handed Ontario only its second regulation defeat of the season when leading after two periods. The game also closed the eight-game season series between the clubs — each won four games.
“That’s a playoff-mentality game right there,’’ Mazzolini said. “And we rose to the challenge. And we think could see them again.’’
Hockey fans, harbor hope.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Ontario 0 2 0 — 2
Aces0 1 2 — 3
First Period — None. Penalties — Bigos, Ontario (kneeing), 9:24; Curry, Aces (roughing), 17:26.
Second Period — 1, Ontario, Kitsyn 6 (Burt, Register), 1:12; 2, Aces, Connolly 16 (Mazzolini), 5:43 (pp); 3, Ontario, Van de Mosselear 2 (Kitsyn, Stalberg), 14:25. Penalties — Bigos, Ontario (cross-checking), 4:29; Curry, Aces (unsportsmanlike conduct), 17:14; Van de Mosselaer, Ontario (unsportsmanlike conduct), 17:14; Gron, Ontario (holding), 18:30.
Third Period — 4, Aces, Taranto 9 (Morrison, MacKenzie), :35; 5, Aces, Morrison 13 (Mazzolini), 14:25 (sh). Penalties — Bigos, Ontario (holding), 5:11; Connolly, Aces (interference), 13:43; Beebe, Ontario (goaltender interference), 16:29.
Shots on goal — Ontario 14-10-6—30. Aces 8-15-11—34.
Power-play Opportunities — Ontario 0 of 2. Aces 1 of 5.
Goalies — Ontario, Olkinuora, 8-9-1 (34 shots-21 saves). Aces, Kangas, 1-2-2 (30-28).
A — 5,530 (6,399). T — 2:29.
Referee — Pierre Lambert. Linesmen — Travis Jackson, Josh Ellis.
By DOYLE WOODY