In the three previous ECHL hockey seasons, as the Alaska Aces bagged an unprecedented three straight Brabham Cups as regular-season champions, they never won fewer than 26 of their 36 home games.
Saturday night, when they closed their regular-season schedule at Sullivan Arena, the Aces hit the 26-win mark at home yet again.
Buoyed by Connor Knapp’s 24 saves and Brett Findlay’s Gordie Howe hat trick — goal, assist, fight — the Aces beat the Colorado Eagles, 4-2, before an announced crowd of 5,860.
The win once again pushed the Aces (39-17-5 for 83 points) to the top of the 21-team circuit, two points ahead of the idle Ontario Reign.
After being bageled 2-0 by Colorado rookie goaltender Dustin Butler in Thursday’s opener of the three-game series, the Aces bounced back for Friday’s 2-1 victory and Saturday’s win. Saturday’s game felt like the postseason — gritty, intense, and flush with speed and skill — and indeed the Kelly Cup playoffs are right around the corner.
First, though, the Aces play their final 10 games of the regular season on the road, which will make seizing a fourth straight Brabham a tall order.
The Brabham assures the winner home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. That asset proves especially pivotal for the Aces because they play on the only Olympic-sized sheet in the league — Olympic ice is 15 feet wider than a standard NHL-size rink and changes angles and strategy, and requires adjustments from visitors.
Saturday’s victory gave the Aces a 26-8-2 record at Sullivan Arena this season. They also won 26 games at home last season, won 29 home games two seasons ago, and won 26 home games in 2010-11, when they earned one of the two Kelly Cups in franchise history.
Just as they are wont to do on Sullivan’s wide sheet while playing in front of a boisterous, cowbell-clanging crowd, the Aces got off to another strong start. After scoring a mere 82 seconds into Friday’s win, they needed 87 seconds to initiate the scoring Saturday.
Peter Sivak delivered his team-leading 26th goal off a gorgeous passing sequence from Nick Mazzolini and Tyler Mosienko that produced a no-hope situation for Butler (29 saves). That’s about what it took to beat the rookie in this series — he stopped 108 of 113 shots in three games. Not often will a goalie rack a .956 save percentage and lose two of three games.
Alaska pumped its lead to 2-0 on a controversial sequence late in the second period.
Aces winger Alex Belzile wall-papered Colorado’s Jesse Mychin face-first into the boards deep in the Eagles zone in what looked suspiciously like, at the very least, a boarding minor, and perhaps a major. But referee J.M. McNulty did not lift whistle to mouth, play continued and Findlay scored.
That set off complaints from the Eagles and a touch of nastiness between the teams. Findlay and Colorado’s Kyle Kraemer fought, and Aces defenseman Drew MacKenzie received a major penalty and game misconduct for spearing.
Colorado’s ensuing three-minute power play carried over to the third period, when Kevin Ulanski’s man-advantage slapper threaded traffic to cut Alaska’s lead to 2-1 one minute into the period.
Less than seven minutes later, though, Findlay was on left wing when he found veteran defenseman Sean Curry joining the rush and delivered a cross-ice pass. Curry’s wrister from the right circle went off Butler’s glove and in to restore the Aces’ two-goal lead at 3-1.
The Eagles (29-20-10) were not done. Greg Gardner’s one-timer from the right circle with less than five minutes to play pulled his club to within a goal at 3-2.
That margin held until just 12.4 seconds remained and Butler was on the bench in favor of a sixth attacker.
Aces center Jordan Morrison, who assisted on Findlay’s goal, corralled the puck and from the red line 9-ironed a backhander as he was being taken to the ice. His empty-net goal secured victory.
And that gave the Aces a league-leading .750 winning percentage at Sullivan Arena. The next-best team on its home ice is Kalamazoo, which checks in with a .710 winning percentage with five home games remaining.
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Colorado0 0 2 — 2
Aces1 1 2 — 4
First Period — 1, Aces, Sivak 26 (Mazzolini, Mosienko), 1:27. Penalties — Gardner, Colorado (tripping), 2:24; Syvret, Aces (roughing), 7:41.
Second Period — 2, Aces, Findlay 17 (Morrison, Belzile), 16:08. Penalties — Syvret, Aces (high-sticking), 8:05; Findlay, Aces, major (fighting), 16:08; Kraemer, Colorado, minor-major-misconduct (fighting, unsportsmanlike conduct), 16:08; MacKenzie, Aces, major-game misconduct, (spearing), 16:08.
Third Period — 3, Colorado, Ulanski 20 (Ostrow, Young), 1:00 (pp); 4, Aces, Curry 2 (Findlay, Mosienko), 8:34; 5, Colorado, Gardner 10 (Nelson, Johnston), 15:20; 6, Aces, Morrison 14, 19:47 (en). Penalties — None.
Shots on goal — Colorado 7-6-13—26. Aces 12-13-8—33.
Power-play Opportunities — Colorado 1 of 4. Aces 0 of 1.
Goalies — Colorado, Butler, 4-3-0 (32 shots-29 saves). Aces, Knapp, 11-12-4 (26-24).
A — 5,860 (6,399). T — 2:24.
Referee — J.M. McNulty. Linesmen — Scott Sivulich, Josh Ellis.
By DOYLE WOODY