In securing their unprecedented fourth consecutive Brabham Cup as ECHL regular-season champions Friday night, the Alaska Aces worked from a familiar and lethal template: Grand goaltending, smothering team defense and a quick-strike offense.
The Aces reeled off three goals in a late first-period span of less than six minutes, kept the deadly Colorado Eagles' offense largely in check, and when occasional and inevitable cracks in their defense appeared, counted on Gerald Coleman to have their collective backs.
Coleman's 25 saves and a complete offensive game -- three goals at even strength, one on the power play and one short-handed -- delivered the Aces a 5-0 road victory at the sold-out Budweiser Events Center.
That win assured the Aces they can do no worse than tie for first place overall with the Ontario Reign. But the Aces own the first tie-breaker, non-shootout wins. They have 42. Ontario can do no better than 40. So, the result of Alaska's season-finale in Colorado on Saturday night is moot.
The Aces (45-18-7) captured their league-record fifth Brabham Cup in 11 ECHL seasons. No other ECHL team has ever won consecutive Brabhams. The Aces have won three Brabhams under current bench boss Rob Murray.
By retaining the Brabham, the Aces clinched home-ice advantage throughout the Kelly Cup playoffs, which open Friday when they entertain the Las Vegas Wranglers at Sullivan Arena in Game 1 of a best-of-7 series.
The Aces' most hard-core fans are known as the Cowbell Crew, and maybe they should start calling the Aces the Banner Boys. Alaska added the Brabham to the fourth straight Mountain Division crown it previously secured, and banners signifying both titles will be join the numerable banners that already adorn the east wall at Sullivan.
The Aces have flourished again this season by dominating at home and forging strong results on the road. They went 26-8-2 at Sullivan for a .750 winning percentage on home ice that leads the league -- Utah could tie them for best home record with a season-ending win Saturday. Alaska has gone 19-10-5 on the road for a .632 winning percentage that ranks third in the 21-team league.
Alaska also prospered late in the season, when its last 10 games were scheduled on the road and it was in a close race for the Brabham with Ontario and defending Kelly Cup champion Reading.
Through nine of those games, the Aces have gone 6-1-2 to earn 14 of a possible 18 points in the standings.
"It kind of has been lost in the shuffle that we had our last 10 games on the road, and we had to win these games,'' Aces coach Rob Murray said by cellphone. "We knew going in it was going to be tough, but we had to get it done, and we did.
"It's a credit to the guys.''
In two of the games on this long road stretch, Murray pointed out, the Aces secured an unlikely point. They lost in overtime, 5-4, at Stockton on March 22, but scored three goals in the last 10-plus minutes of regulation just to get to extra time. And their 5-4 shootout loss at Colorado on Wednesday came after the Aces scored twice in the last eight-plus minutes of regulation.
"That all adds up,'' Murray said.
The Aces have also succeeded despite an overwhelming number of injuries. Unofficially, 18 different Aces players have missed a combined 351 games because of injuries. That's the most games Aces players have missed because of injuries in the last six seasons.
Alaska received ample help on the personnel front from its affiliation agreement with the NHL's Calgary Flames and the Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League. About one-third of the 18 players the Aces dressed Friday night are either under AHL contract -- that affords the Aces some salary-cap relief -- or have played in the AHL this season, or both.
Coleman's second shutout of the hockey season was the 11th this season by an Alaska masked man, setting a team record and tying the ECHL record established by the Wheeling Nailers a decade ago. The Aces lead the league in defense, permitting opponents 2.30 goals per game.
After Coleman kept the Eagles at bay early, Aces leading scorer and All-ECHL first-teamer Peter Sivak initiated the scoring barrage.
Sivak whipped a dart from the right circle over Dustin Butler's blocker for his 30th goal. Defenseman John Ramage, back from injury and playing his fifth game with the Aces, which makes him playoff-eligible, smoked a slapper past Butler for his first pro goal in a combined 55 games with Abbotsford and the Aces. And Turner Elson struck short-handed to drive Alaska's lead to 3-0 before first intermission.
Evan Trupp's power-play goal five minutes into the second period extended Alaska's advantage to 4-0 and snapped its string of 21 consecutive failed power plays. Brendan Connolly, the winger who sat out Wednesday's 5-4 shootout loss in Colorado with a bad back, closed the scoring late in the second period.
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Aces3 2 0 -- 5
Colorado 0 0 0 -- 0
First Period -- 1, Aces, Sivak 30 (Trupp, Syvret), 13:48; 2, Aces, Ramage 1 (Findlay, Morrison), 17:06; 3, Aces, Elson 5 (MacKenzie), 19:39 (sh). Penalties -- McKelvie, Aces (roughing), 18:52.
Second Period -- 4, Aces, Trupp 17 (Mazzolini, Sivak), 5:39 (pp); 5, Aces, Connolly 22 (Elson, Mosienko), 14:10. Penalties -- Hau, Colorado (tripping), 5:11; Smeltzer, Colorado (slashing), 5:55.
Third Period -- None. Penalties -- Taranto, Aces (holding), 7:40.
Shots on goal -- Aces 12-13-6--31. Colorado 10-9-6--25.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 1 of 2. Colorado 0 of 2.
Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 14-6-5 (25 shots-25 saves). Colorado, Butler, 5-8-1 (21-16); Williams, enter 14:10 2nd (10-10).
A -- 5,289 (5,289). T -- 2:14.
Referee -- Frederic Leblanc. Linesmen -- Robert Keltie, Seth Mukai.
By DOYLE WOODY