The Alaska Aces crumbled like a cracker Saturday night, and the sting of their epic collapse in Las Vegas could prove even more piercing down the line.
After Jordan Morrison afforded the Aces a two-goal lead with only 2 minutes, 18 seconds left in regulation, Las Vegas pumped in three goals in 70 seconds -- two of them gifted by turnovers from Aces defensemen -- and floated off the Orleans Arena ice with a 4-3 ECHL victory.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but in the last four hockey seasons, the Aces had led 148 times after two periods -- they led 2-1 through 40 minutes Saturday -- and not lost a single game in regulation. They had gone 139-0-9 in those games.
Another point: The Aces entered the night as the best team in the league and the Wranglers remain the worst team on the 21-club circuit.
Alaska also owned a 10-1 advantage in the season series, and before Las Vegas' late three-goal onslaught had outscored the Wranglers 48-18 in the season series.
And only once in 11 previous games with Las Vegas this season had the Aces permitted the Wranglers to score more than two goals in an entire game.
Alaska's regulation loss, coupled with Ontario's 3-1 win over Stockton, allowed the Reign to leapfrog the Aces and gain the league's top winning percentage at .689. Alaska sits at .687.
Winning percentage is critical because it will determine the Brabham Cup as regular-season champion, and that honor assures the winner home-ice advantage throughout the Kelly Cup playoffs.
Should the Aces fail by mere percentage points in their quest for an unprecedented fourth consecutive Brabham -- no other franchise in the league's previous 25 seasons has won two straight Brabhams -- the way they surrendered two points Saturday night will surely be the indictment.
After Morrison's goal seemingly assured victory, Las Vegas' Adam Hughesman answered just 31 seconds later when Aces defenseman Drew MacKenzie coughed up the puck to him and Hughesman beat Aaron Crandall with a backhander that cut Alaska's lead to 3-2.
Just 24 seconds after that, with the teams skating 4 on 4 and Wranglers goaltender Travis Fullerton (41 saves) on the bench for an extra attacker, Aces defenseman Corey Syvret committed the kind of egregious turnover hockey players call a "pizza.'' Chad Nehring accepted the delivery in the Alaska zone and buried a slapshot for a 3-3 tie.
Just 46 seconds after that, with the Aces firmly in Dr. Heimlich territory, Fullerton played the puck to teammate Matt Tassone. Tassone raced up the ice and beat Crandall to deliver the dagger, burden the Aces with a jaw-dropping loss and give the rookie goalie his first pro defeat in four starts since joining the club.
"They didn't win that game. We gave it to them,'' Aces coach Rob Murray told KFQD Radio.
The late drama rendered moot the Aces' domination through two periods -- they owned a 34-19 advantage in shots through 40 minutes.
After a scoreless first period, Aces winger Evan Trupp sandwiched two goals around one from Las Vegas' Justin Bernhardt to give Alaska a 2-1 lead that held deep into the third period.
Alaska's inexplicable loss -- and that surely doubles as Las Vegas' most stirring victory this season -- snapped its six-game point streak (5-0-1) and its five-game point streak (4-0-1) on this road trip.
The Aces don't have much time to digest their distress. They wrap the seven-game road trip and the three-game series in Las Vegas with a Sunday matinee before having 10 days off and closing the regular season with a three-game trip to Colorado.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Aces0 2 1 -- 3
Las Vegas0 1 3 -- 4
First Period -- None. Penalties -- Curry, Aces (hooking), 6:50; Skelly, Las Vegas (hooking), 16:21.
Second Period -- 1, Aces, Trupp 15 (Elson), :23; 2, Las Vegas, Bernhardt 4 (Huxley), 7:24; 3, Aces, Trupp 16 (Elson), 15:44. Penalties -- None.
Third Period -- 4, Aces, Morrison 17 (Martin), 17:42; 5, Las Vegas, Hughesman 21, 18:13; 6, Las Vegas, Nehring 20, 18:37; 7, Las Vegas, Tassone 13 (Fullerton), 19:23. Penalties -- Paukovich, Las Vegas (boarding), 2:54; Coburn, Las Vegas (roughing), 18:13; Connolly, Aces (roughing), 18:13.
Shots on goal -- Aces 17-17-10--44. Las Vegas 8-11-9--28.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 0 of 2. Las Vegas 0 of 1.
Goalies -- Aces, Crandall, 3-1-1 (28 shots-24 saves). Las Vegas, Fullerton, 13-19-6 (44-41).
A -- 7,054 (7,773). T -- 2:28.
Referee -- Andy Thackaberry. Linesmen -- Steven Walsh, Wally Lacroix.
The Alaska Aces on Friday clinched the ECHLs Mountain Division title for the fourth consecutive season, putting them one behind the Louisiana IceGators league-record five consecutive division titles from 1998-2002.
Here are the eight teams in the history of the league who have won three or more consecutive division titles in the leagues 26 seasons, and note the Aces are the only club on that list twice:
TEAMCONSECUTIVE DIVISION TITLESSEASONS
Louisiana IceGators5, Southwest Division 1998-2002
Alaska Aces 4, Mountain Division 2011-2014
Ontario Reign 3, Pacific Division 2012-2014
Kalamazoo Wings 3, North Division 2010-2012
Alaska Aces 3, West Division 2005-2007
Columbia Inferno 3, East, South, Southeast Divisions 2003-2005
Roanoke Express 3, Northeast Division 1998-2000
Toledo Storm 3, North and West Divisions 1992-1994
By DOYLE WOODY