Goals proved a difficult commodity to obtain Friday night in West Valley City, Utah, where the nets were guarded by giants whose performances were as imposing as their frames.
With 6-foot-5, 214-pound Gerald Coleman protecting the Alaska Aces' net and 6-foot-6, 235-pound Igor Bobkov gate-keeping the Utah Grizzlies' cage, there wasn't an even-strength goal to be had in the Maverik Center.
The Aces, though, used two power-play strikes to offset a late extra-attacker goal from the Grizzlies and earn a 2-1 victory before an announced crowd of 6,669.
Alaska (35-15-4) continued its reign atop the ECHL, retaining and improving its league-best winning percentage (.685) and moving into first place in points (74) as it heads into Saturday night's series finale in Utah.
The Aces, coming off a 6-5 shootout loss Wednesday at Idaho with Coleman in net, received stellar labor from their veteran. He stopped 28 shots, a body of work that included a second-period save on Mathieu Aubin's breakaway and a third-period denial on Joseph Cramarossa's short-handed breakaway.
Aces coach Rob Murray said premium chances were minimal on both sides because the teams played such sturdy games without the puck.
"I think Gerald probably had only three or four quality saves he had to make,'' Murray said by cellphone. "Their guy, probably the same. I think both teams played very well defensively and limited chances.''
This wasn't the same Grizzlies team the Aces faced shortly before Christmas, when they swept a three-game series at Sullivan Arena. At that point, Utah was just 7-14-3. Entering Friday, the Grizzlies were 20-5-5 since getting the broom in Anchorage.
That the teams played Friday was a reflection of the altered schedule the ECHL was forced to compose after the San Francisco Bulls folded in late January. The series in Anchorage before the Christmas break was supposed to be the last time the Aces and Grizzlies met in the regular season, but San Francisco's departure put two more Aces-Grizzlies games on the docket.
Before Friday, Bobkov had proved nearly impossible for the Aces to crack. He beat them 2-0 in Utah on Dec. 4, then shut them out for 65 minutes on Dec. 6 before Alaska grabbed a 1-0 shootout victory.
The Aces finally solved Bobkov deep into the first period Friday. But even then it took a manpower advantage. Brett Findlay scored off an Andy Taranto feed on the power play to stake the Aces to a 1-0 lead.
That lead held until seven minutes into the third period when Tyler Mosienko's power-play goal off a helper from captain Nick Mazzolini furnished the Aces a 2-0 cushion that proved a necessary margin.
That's because Utah pulled Bobkov (25 saves) for an extra attacker with less than three minutes to play and Jamie McQueen, who fired a game-high six shots on goal, scored on a one-timer with 1:50 left to slash Alaska's lead to 2-1.
But once the Grizzlies were able to get Bobkov to the bench again for an extra skater, they never mustered a Grade A opportunity for the equalizer.
The Aces snapped Bobkov's streak of games unbeaten in regulation at 11 (9-0-2).
Shuffling the deck
Winger Alex Belzile, acquired from Gwinnett on Friday in exchange for the ECHL rights to former Aces goaltender Mark Guggenberger, is expected to arrive in Utah on Saturday morning and be in the lineup that night, Murray said.
Belzile has been out since Nov. 11 with an upper-body injury, but Murray said he has been cleared to play. Belzile has only played three games this season. As a rookie last season, he delivered 10-20--30 totals in 40 games for Gwinnett and 3-5--8 totals in 14 games for Hamilton of the American Hockey League.
Aces winger and alternate captain Jordan Kremyr, who had missed Alaska's previous eight games with an injury, was called up to AHL Abbotsford.
Alaska is 2-0-1 in its last three games. The Aces are 6-1-0 against Utah this season, including 3-1-0 in Utah.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces1 0 1 -- 2
Utah0 0 1 -- 1
First Period -- 1, Aces, Findlay 15 (Taranto, MacKenzie), 15:10 (pp). Penalties - Connolly, Aces (boarding), 8:40; Aubin, Utah (tripping), 13:49.
Second Period -- None. Penalties - Zahn, Utah (interference), 3:26; Findlay, Aces (high-sticking), 5:36; Cramarossa, Utah (hooking), 11:40; Zahn, Utah, minor-major (instigator, fighting), 15:55; Davies, Aces, minor-major (boarding, fighting), 15:55.
Third Period -- 2, Aces, Mosienko 2 (Mazzolini, Richard), 6:58 (pp); 3, Utah, McQueen 18 (Mangan, Scarsella), 18:10 (ea). Penalties - Boe, Utah (hooking), 2:28; Pelech, Utah (cross-checking), 6:23; Mangan, Utah (high-sticking), 7:08; Richard, Aces (slashing), 7:48.
Shots on goal -- Aces 6-10-11--27. Utah 9-8-12--29.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 2 of 6. Utah 0 of 3.
Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 11-4-2 (29 shots-28 saves). Utah, Bobkov, 11-5-4 (27-25).
A -- 6,669 (10,200). T --2:23.
Referee --Brett Sheva. Linesmen -- Ed Henderson, Kollin Kleinendorst.
By DOYLE WOODY