When defenseman John Ramage was demoted to the ECHL’s Alaska Aces a month ago after spending the season to that point with the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Heat, the rookie understandably was less than thrilled.
Ramage joined his new club on the road in Las Vegas, and he quickly altered his outlook.
“Any time you get sent down, it’s an eye-opener,’’ Ramage said. “Everyone’s goal playing hockey is to play in the National Hockey League. After my first (Aces) practice — I think we had a game that night — I realized how good a team we have down here.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this team can do special things,’ and I got excited.’’
The Aces are equally pumped to have Ramage, who Saturday night delivered a power-play goal that proved the game-winning strike and clinched a 3-1 playoff win over the Las Vegas Wranglers with an empty-net goal at Sullivan Arena.
The victory, following Friday’s 5-1 Aces win in Friday’s postseason opener, earned Alaska a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7, Kelly Cup Western Conference quarterfinal series that now moves to Las Vegas.
With seven of the ECHL’s eight opening-round series two games deep, the Aces are one of three teams that own a 2-0 advantage.
Ramage’s fingerprints were all over Saturday’s win. Beyond his two goals and team-high seven shots on goal, he helped kill both Wranglers power plays. During a Wranglers power play in the third period, Ramage wall-papered Las Vegas’ Michael Neal to the left-wing boards with a thundering hip check.
“An old-school Rob Ramage hit,’’ said Aces defense coach Louis Mass, referring to John Ramage’s father, who played more than 1,100 NHL regular-season and Stanley Cup playoff games.
The Aces didn’t expect to see Ramage, 23, this season, but were quickly pleased when they realized the boost the 6-foot, 205-pound blueliner could furnish.
He arrived with a strong rink resume. Ramage played in the U.S. National Team Development Program, twice represented the country in the World Junior Championship and played four seasons at Wisconsin. He was a fourth-round pick of the Calgary Flames, who own his contract. In Abbotsford, Ramage’s numbers weren’t head-turning — one assist and plus-2 in 50 games, albeit without power-play time.
But Mass said he came to appreciate Ramage’s ability to get power-play shots through traffic and his poise with the puck.
“Seems like the more we see him, the more we like him,’’ Mass said. “At first blush, you don’t really see all the things he can do. But the more you see him, you realize he can do a lot.’’
The Aces like Ramage so much that they reconfigured their lineup to make certain Ramage played the minimum five regular-season ECHL games to make him eligible for the playoffs. After Ramage suffered an upper-body injury early in his Aces tenure, coach Rob Murray in one game put Ramage on the ice for the opening face-off and had him quickly come to the bench, where he remained the rest of the match. That counted as a game played, and Ramage ended up playing six regular-season games.
Saturday, after Aces defenseman Drew MacKenzie forged a 1-1 tie with his second power-play goal of the series — that answered a first-period goal from Las Vegas winger Shawn Skelly, the former Ace — Ramage delivered the go-ahead goal in the final minute of the first period.
Stationed at the center point just inside the blue line, he took a pass from Aces captain Nick Mazzolini (three assists) and bombed a one-timer through traffic and over the left shoulder of Travis Fullerton (34 saves) for a 2-1 Aces lead.
“The coaches have been great and given me lots of opportunities,’’ Ramage said. “I’m just trying to make the most of it and help out a little bit.’’
Aces goaltender Olivier Roy played his first game in five weeks — his last previous game came for Abbotsford on March 15, when he stopped 31 shots in a 3-1 loss to Utica. He made his club’s lead hold up in the face of relatively light work that can be difficult for a goalie coming off a hiatus from game action. He stopped 18 shots.
“We block a ton of shots and play well in the defensive zone, and make it hard for the other team to get the puck to the net,’’ Roy said. “So, I had to wait a while to feel the puck. I felt more comfortable as the game went on.’’
The Aces sealed the victory with Fullerton on the bench in favor of a sixth attacker in the final minute. Mazzolini fed Ramage once, but Ramage’s shot hit the skates of teammate Turner Elson. Mazzolini regained the puck and again fed Ramage, who fired into an empty net to complete his first two-goal game as a pro.
Shuffling the deck
Mazzolini, who centers the first line and plays on the first power-play unit, in last season’s playoffs went 3-3—6 in 11 games. With his three assists Saturday, he owns 1-5—6 totals in two playoff games this time around.
The Aces are 3 for 7 on the power play in the series and have killed all four Wranglers power plays.
Alaska has outshot Las Vegas, 77-39, in the series and has won 13 of its 15 games against the Wranglers in the regular season and playoffs this season.
Game 3 is Wednesday at Orleans Arena in Sin City, with Game 4 set for Friday and Game 5, if necessary, scheduled Saturday.
Game 2 drew an announced crowd of 4,239 to give the Aces an average of 4,218 in their first two playoff games. The Aces last season averaged 4,247 in their first two playoff games.
In other Western Conference series:
Stockton 5, Ontario 3: All-Rookie forward Jeremy Langlois copped a hat trick and an assist to spark the Thunder to a 2-0 series lead. Langlois has only managed 4-3—7 totals in two games.
Though the Reign are the No. 2 seed, they were forced to start the series on the road for the first two games because their rink was not available. The next two games are in Ontario.
Colorado 3, Idaho 1: Kevin Young, Trent Daavettila and Mark Nemec scored goals for the Eagles, who evened the series at 1-1. David de Kastrozza has scored all three Idaho goals in the series. Idaho winger Tommy Grant, the former Seawolf, did not play after getting banged up in Game 1.
Utah 2, Bakersfield 1: Michael Pelech delivered the game-winning goal midway through the third period and Aaron Dell made 24 saves to help the Grizzlies even the series at one game each.
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Las Vegas1 0 0 — 1
Aces 2 0 1 — 3
First Period — 1, Las Vegas, Skelly 1 (Nehring), 14:13; 2, Aces, MacKenzie 2 (Mazzolini, Connolly), 17:52 (pp); 3, Aces, Ramage 1 (Sivak, Mazzolini), 19:36 (pp). Penalties — Cook, Las Vegas (holding), 17:17; Huxley, Las Vegas (slashing), 19:13.
Second Period — None. Penalties — Connolly, Aces (cross-checking), 12:30.
Third Period — 4, Aces, Ramage 2 (Mazzolini, Elson), 19:58 (en). Penalties — Nehring, Las Vegas (goaltender interference), 6:27; Rempel, Las Vegas (hooking), 11:15.
Shots on goal — Las Vegas 6-6-7—19. Aces 11-10-16—37.
Power-play Opportunities — Las Vegas 0 of 2. Aces 2 of 4.
Goalies — Las Vegas, Fullerton, 0-2-0 (36 shots-34 saves). Aces, Roy, 1-0-0 (19-18).
A — 4,239 (6,399). T — 2:25.
Referee — Stephen Reneau. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Josh Ellis.
By DOYLE WOODY