Their leader sought redemption, and seized it. A veteran who joined the team in midseason, explicitly in search of a championship, glimpsed what he covets. And the team defense that furnishes the foundation of success delivered.
The Alaska Aces found a lot to like in their ECHL Kelly Cup playoff opener Friday night at Sullivan Arena.
Buoyed by captain Nick Mazzolini’s three-point performance, the first two-goal ECHL playoff game of Jordan Morrison’s career and defense that provided goaltender Gerald Coleman a relatively stress-free night, the Aces generated a 5-1 victory over the Las Vegas Wranglers.
Game 1 of the best-of-7 Western Conference quarterfinal series played out like a continuation of the regular-season series between the hockey clubs. Alaska, winner of a fourth consecutive Brabham Cup as the circuit’s regular-season champion, won 11 of 13 regular-season games against Las Vegas, which finished last among 21 teams.
The Aces outscored the Wranglers by better than a 2 to 1 margin in the regular season and nearly outshot them by the same margin. Friday night, before an announced crowd of 4,197, events played out the same way — the Aces outshot the Wranglers, 40-20.
Mazzolini comes into these playoffs with a boulder on his shoulder. In 2010, he was knocked out of the playoffs by a sucker punch in the opening game. And last season, after he earned All-ECHL Second Team honors, he struggled in the postseason with one point in his first four games and 3-3—6 totals in 11 games.
Friday, he started making new, more exhilarating memories. Mazzolini in the first period scored the Aces’ first goal and also made a cross-crease pass to set up Drew MacKenzie’s power-play strike. And he helped close the scoring with 75 seconds left in the game, when he stole the puck from Adam Hughesman behind the net and fed All-ECHL winger Peter Sivak for the final goal.
“I don’t have a lot of good playoff experiences-slash-memories,’’ Mazzolini said. “I had butterflies in my stomach before the game. It shows you really want it, that your heart’s still in it.’’
Morrison, a center, arrived here with linemate Brett Findlay after the San Francisco Bulls folded in late January. He knew of the Aces two Kelly Cup championships (2011, 2006) and their status as perennial contenders, and when coach Rob Murray offered him a spot, he grabbed it.
“It was definitely at the top of my list, and once I narrowed my choices, it was an easy decision,’’ Morrison said.
Both his goals Friday came off helpers from Findlay.
MacKenzie and Morrison scored 26 seconds apart late in the first period to furnish a 3-1 lead. That marked the seventh time in 14 games against the Wranglers this season the Aces have scored three or more goals in a period.
At the other end of the Olympic-sized ice, Coleman made 19 saves and his defensemen blocked ample shots and cleared the occasional rebound from his crease.
“It starts with team defense,’’ Coleman said. “We blocked shots, we had guys back-checking hard, and when you do that you get turnovers, and those lead to opportunities.’’
Murray likes his depth on the blue line so much that the only healthy scratch among the Aces’ seven available defensemen was All-Rookie pick Brad Richard.
The only blemish on Coleman’s sheet was John Armstrong’s first-period goal, which came when Coleman poke-checked Chad Nehring’s pass from behind the net and the puck ricocheted to Armstrong, who unleashed a glove-side wrister.
Murray said he was plenty satisfied with his team’s performance.
“We got a little casual about halfway through the second period, and it showed,’’ he said. “We let our foot off the gas a little bit. But it was very short-lived. We played pretty well systematically.’’
Alaska carried a 4-1 lead into the second intermission, and it harbored a recent reminder of what can happen when a team lets down its guard. The Aces led the Wranglers 3-1 with less than two minutes left in Las Vegas on March 29 and promptly surrendered three goals in 70 seconds to swallow a 4-3 loss that made their march to the Brabham Cup more difficult.
“We remembered a couple of weeks ago,’’ Morrison said. “No matter what the lead, just clamp down.’’
The Aces were mindful too that they simply won one game Friday. The journey to the Kelly Cup requires the winner to notch 16 victories.
“It’s the playoffs, you can’t take any team for granted,’’ Morrison said. “It’s one win. We need 15 more.’’
Shuffling the deck
Murray said goaltender Olivier Roy will get the start in Game 2 Saturday night at Sullivan. Roy last season backstopped the Stockton Thunder to the Kelly Cup Finals.
Alaska improved to 8-1 all-time in Game 1s of opening-round series on home ice. The Aces have won six consecutive Game 1s at home in the opening round.
With five shots each, Morrison, Mazzolini, Sivak and winger Turner Elson matched Las Vegas’ 20 shots.
The Aces won the battle of special teams, converting one of their three power plays and killing both Wranglers power plays.
The Aces’ other scratches were wingers Tommy Mele and Ross Ring-Jarvi.
Defenseman Zach Davies, who is on Alaska’s playoff roster, scored a goal for AHL Abbotsford in a 3-0 victory at San Antonio on Friday. Davies has three goals in 14 games for the Heat.
In other Western Conference playoff openers:
Bakersfield 1, Utah 0: After tying a league regular-season record with eight shutouts, former Aces goaltender Laurent Brossoit stopped 26 shots to spark the Condors’ road win over the Grizzlies.
Andrew Carroll’s strike five minutes into the third period stood up.
Idaho 2, Colorado 1: David de Kastrozza scored two goals, Rookie of the Year William Rapuzzi of Anchorage assisted on both, and Josh Robinson stopped 42 shots for the Steelheads.
Stockton 3, Ontario 1: Joey Martin scored one goal and set up the other two, and Brian Foster racked 26 saves to lead the Thunder to a home-ice win over the Reign.
Ontario, seeded No. 2 in the conference, was forced to start the series on the road because of a rink availability issue.
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Las Vegas 1 0 0 — 1
Aces 3 1 1 — 5
First Period — 1, Aces, Mazzolini 1 (Sivak), 12:13; 2, Las Vegas, Armstrong 1 (Nehring), 15:21; 3, Aces, MacKenzie 1 (Mazzolini, Connolly), 18:01 (pp); 4, Aces, Morrison 1 (Findlay, McKelvie), 18:27. Penalties — McKelvie, Aces (slashing), 8:39; Cook, Las Vegas (kneeing), 17:15; Syvret, Aces (roughing), 19:23; Tassone, Las Vegas (roughing), 19:23.
Second Period — 5, Aces, Morrison 2 (Findlay, Ramage), :37. Penalties — Tassone, Las Vegas (roughing), 8:58; Paukovich, Las Vegas (unsportsmanlike conduct), 15:20.
Third Period — 6, Aces, Sivak 1 (Mazzolini), 18:45. Penalties — Elson, Aces (roughing), 8:41; Nehring, Las Vegas (roughing), 8:41; Trupp, Aces (hooking), 12:35; McKelvie, Aces, double-minor (roughing, unsportsmanlike conduct), 17:44; Smith, Las Vegas, double-minor (roughing, unsportsmanlike conduct), 17:44.
Shots on goal — Las Vegas 5-7-8—20. Aces 11-10-19—40.
Power-play Opportunities — Las Vegas 0 of 2. Aces 1 of 3.
Goalies — Las Vegas, Fullerton, 0-1-0 (40 shots-35 saves). Aces, Coleman, 1-0-0 (20-19).
A — 4,197 (6,399). T — 2:29.
Referee — Stephen Reneau. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.
By DOYLE WOODY