All things considered -- their lone lead didn't last three minutes, a first-line winger sat out with a wonky back and they trailed by two goals inside the last nine minutes of regulation -- the Alaska Aces did well to pocket a point on the road Wednesday night.
Alaska's 5-4 shootout loss to the Colorado Eagles, who won the skills contest 2-1 in eight rounds at the typically sold-out Budweiser Events Center, maintained some of the Aces' modest breathing room leading the race for the Brabham Cup as the ECHL's regular-season champions.
The Aces have won the Brabham, which assures the winner home-ice advantage throughout the Kelly Cup playoffs, a record three straight times. No other team has won consecutive Brabhams in the league's 26-season history.
Alaska's lead in the hunt, which will be decided by winning percentage, would have been thinner than a skate blade had it lost in regulation Wednesday. As it is -- given Ontario's win over Stockton and Reading's shootout loss to Florida -- Alaska's lead is as thin as the shaft of a hockey stick.
The Aces (44-18-7) own a winning percentage of .688 with two games left in the regular season, Friday and Saturday nights at Colorado. Ontario (44-19-7) sits at .679 with one game left and Reading (45-21-4) hangs at .671 with two games left.
After Colorado's Brock Nixon bagged his second goal of the game early in the third period to furnish the Eagles a 4-2 lead, the Aces found themselves in a tough spot in their first game after a 10-day layoff.
But Alaska's first line rose up for a rescue. Captain Nick Mazzolini scored with less than nine minutes to play to pull the Aces within a goal. Leading scorer Peter Sivak backhanded home a rebound with 86 seconds left in regulation, just as goaltender Gerald Coleman was heading to the bench for an extra attacker, to forge a 4-4 tie.
"The euphoria of tying it up is overshadowed by the shootout loss,'' Aces coach Rob Murray said by cellphone. "We had two chances to win (the shootout), but it is what it is. We did well to come back and tie it up.''
The first line proved first-rate, accounting for all four Aces goals. Mazzolini, who figured in all four goals with two goals and two assists, began the evening centering wingers Sivak and Andy Taranto, the latter elevated to the top line because Brendan Connolly's back seized up on him during Tuesday's trip to Colorado.
Taranto scored just 18 seconds into the game. Evan Trupp moved up to play with Mazzolini and Sivak in the third period and assisted on his linemates' goals.
Still, it proved a hard evening for the Aces. Nixon's power-play strike wiped out Alaska's 1-0 lead in short order, and goals from Trent Daavettila late in the first period and Mark Nemec midway through the second period delivered the Eagles a 3-1 lead.
Mazzolini's unassisted strike just 70 seconds after Nemec's goal kept the Aces within striking distance. Coleman (20 saves) stopped Daavettila's short-handed breakaway late in the second period and also made a key stop on former Ace Alex Hudson (two assists) early in the third period. Coleman, who backstopped the Aces to the Kelly Cup in 2011, played his first game in 18 days after returning from an undisclosed upper-body injury.
Alaska likely wouldn't have had to shift into comeback mode had its power play enjoyed some success.
But the Aces, who went 0 for 7 with the man advantage, have come up empty on 21 consecutive chances with the man advantage in the span of the last six games.
Murray said the his club didn't execute well on the power play and didn't handle pressure from Colorado's defensemen well.
"There were a couple of opportunities where we got out-battled, out-worked,'' he said. "There's got to be more of a sense of urgency on the power play.''
Even so, after twice trailing by two goals on the road and coming off a long layoff, Murray said he was encouraged heading into the weekend's games.
"We know we can be better,'' he said.
Shuffling the deck
The Aces' 0 for 21 drought on the power play is their second-longest one this season -- they were 0 for 25 in their worst drought.
Trupp's two assists gives him a four-game point streak -- he owns 2-5--7 totals in that span.
The Aces are just 1-3-1 at Colorado this season. This is the second time this season they've come off a 10-day layoff to play at series at Colorado.
Sivak and Mazzolini were both plus-4. Sivak once this season went plus-5, twice has gone plus-4 and 17 times has been plus-2 or better. He leads the league in plus-minus at plus-46 in 65 games.
Colorado defenseman Nemec (one goal, one assist) was plus-2 and is second in the league at plus-37. Mazzolini ranks third at plus-36.
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Colorado wins shootout 2-1 in 8 rounds
Aces 1 1 2 0 -- 4
Colorado 2 1 1 1 -- 5
First Period -- 1, Aces, Taranto 12 (Mazzolini), :18; 2, Colorado, Nixon 3 (Hudson, Hau), 3:02 (pp); 3, Colorado, Daavettila 22 (Ostrow, Nemec), 17:25. Penalties -- Mosienko, Aces (holding), 1:08; Phillips, Colorado, double-minor, served by Beatty (interference, roughing), 6:25; Elson, Aces (roughing), 6:25; Mychan, Colorado, major (fighting), 9:38; McKelvie, Aces, major (fighting), 9:38; Findlay, Aces (hooking), 14:42; Hau, Colorado (hooking), 18:04.
Second Period -- 4, Colorado, Nemec 5 (Ostrow, Kraemer), 8:41; 5, Aces, Mazzolini 24, 9:51. Penalties -- Nemec, Colorado (delay of game-puck over glass), 5:30; MacKenzie, Aces (tripping), 15:55; Mychan, Colorado (cross-checking), 16:33; Curry, Aces (cross-checking), 16:33; Ostrow, Colorado (delay of game-puck over glass), 18:26.
Third Period -- 6, Colorado, Nixon 4 (Hudson, Beatty), 4:34; 7, Aces, Mazzolini 25 (Trupp), 11:37; 8, Aces, Sivak 29 (Trupp, Mazzolini), 18:34. Penalties -- Mychan, Colorado (roughing), 1:56; Richard, Aces (roughing), 1:56; Mychan, Colorado, double-minor-major-misconduct (roughing, fighting), 6:57; Curry, Aces, major (fighting), 6:57; Coleman, Aces (roughing), 6:57; Johnston, Colorado (boarding), 16:21.
Overtime -- None. Penalties -- None.
Shootout -- Colorado 2 (Kraemer NG, Daavettila NG, Ostrow G, Luke Fulghum NG, Ulanski NG, Young NG, Nixon NG, Nelson G), Aces 1 (Sivak NG, Mazzolini NG, Trupp NG, Belzile NG, Mosienko G, Taranto NG, Findlay NG, Morrison NG).
Shots on goal -- Aces 9-3-16-3--31. Colorado 8-8-8-0--24.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 0 of 7. Colorado 1 of 3.
Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 13-6-5 (24 shots-20 saves). Colorado, Butler, 5-7-1 (31-27).
A -- 5,289 (5,289). T -- 2:40.
Referee -- Frederic Leblanc. Linesmen -- Robert Keltie, Butch Mousseaux.
By DOYLE WOODY