Big hits, post-whistle scrums, ample chirping, all capped by mayhem at the final buzzer — demeanors were so edgy Friday night, the Alaska Aces and Idaho Steelheads conducted themselves as if playing for something significant like, say, a coveted chalice.
Make no mistake about this ECHL Western Conference semifinal clash on the journey to what both teams seek, the Kelly Cup: Oh, it’s on in a big way.
After Thursday’s Game 1 went scoreless through regulation before Idaho triumphed in overtime, the script flipped in Game 2 on Friday, when the teams combined for six third-period goals — and no shortage of hockey hostilities — and the Aces seized a 6-4 win at Sullivan Arena.
Looks like we have brewing is a bitter best-of-7 playoff encounter, which appears unlikely to go down in history as The Friendship Series.
“That’s exactly what you’re working with,’’ said Aces captain Nick Mazzolini, who contributed two assists. “You’ve got two teams who don’t like each other, and it’s probably going to show in the next games.’’
When Aces defenseman Zach Davies used his skates to pin the puck against the boards in the left corner of his zone in the final seconds, after he saw Alaska goaltender Olivier Roy (18 saves) take a spill, it seemed inevitable players from both teams would gather in the corner for parting shots. Aces defenseman Drew MacKenzie and Idaho forward Mitch Wahl fought briefly, other opponents paired off for pushing, shoving and debate, and six of the game’s 23 penalties were whistled.
So ended a match the Aces desperately needed to win before heading to Idaho for the next three games. The clubs renew acquaintances Monday night with Game 3 in Boise.
Even when Tommy Mele banged home a one-timer off Tyler Mosienko’s feed from behind the net with less than four minutes to go to give Alaska its fourth two-goal lead at 6-4, victory did not seem certain for the home team. The Aces gained some breathing room before an announced crowd of 3,921 when Idaho’s Patrick Cullity was whistled for tripping a minute later.
“There was skill, there was scoring; obviously, there was a lot of emotion,’’ said Idaho defenseman Russ Sinkewich, the former Ace. “That’s what playoff hockey is all about. I firmly believe whoever wins this series is going to be playing in June.’’
For the Aces, the evening began somberly. All-ECHL winger Peter Sivak, who led them in regular-season goals (31) and postseason strikes (5), sat out with an upper-body injury suffered Thursday. Not incidentally, Sivak’s absence prompted Mele’s appearance in the lineup.
The Steelheads won’t exactly cry a river over Sivak in civilian clothes. They’re missing former UAA winger Tommy Grant and forward Anthony Nigro, who combined for 40 regular-season goals.
Idaho’s Jason Best opened the scoring on a power-play rebound seven minutes into the game and the Aces answered with goals from defenseman-turned-winger Zach McKelvie and winger Evan Trupp 43 seconds apart later in the period.
MacKenzie’s goal snapped Alaska’s goal drought, which dated back to the second period of Game 4 in its opening-round sweep of Las Vegas, at 102:47. Trupp’s goal snapped his five-game postseason point drought — he moved up to man Sivak’s usual station at right wing on Mazzolini’s line — and he added a second-period power-play goal to furnish a 3-1 lead heading into the second intermission.
All Alaska’s goals came against Pat Nagle (39 saves), who gave Josh Robinson a break. Robinson made a league record-tying 83 saves in Monday’s series-clinching, four-overtime game against Colorado — the longest game in league history — and 47 saves in Idaho’s 1-0 OT win Thursday in Game 1.
Game 2 went seriously off the low-scoring rails in the third period.
With the Aces on the power play early in the period, Idaho’s David de Kastrozza, who scored to cap Monday’s marathon, stole a pass and beat Roy on a short-handed breakaway to cut Alaska’s lead to 3-2. Just 16 seconds later, Wahl thieved an Alaska pass for another short-handed breakaway, but Roy gloved his wrister.
MacKenzie soon scored his fourth goal of the playoffs, all on the power play, just as he scored the previous three — sneaking in the back door to convert a pass, this one from Jordan Morrison. That delivered a 4-2 Aces lead. Yet Justin Mercier’s back-door tap-in off de Kastrozza’s feed with less than nine minutes left reduced Alaska’s cushion to 4-3.
Three minutes later, Alex Belzile danced around Wahl on the rush and went backhand to forehand to beat Nagle — 5-3 Aces. Naturally, Idaho’s Brock Montgomery countered all of 12 seconds later — 5-4 Aces.
“Our push-back is tremendous,’’ Sinkewich noted.
Mele furnished Alaska’s fourth two-goal lead of the period, and that cushion held.
“We like pumping home all those goals,’’ Mazzolini said. “It’s giving up all those goals that we don’t like, especially this late in the season. We have to remedy that — lots of things to work on.’’
Next, the Aces face a hostile environment in Idaho’s CenturyLink Arena and an opponent that has proved tenacious.
“You’ve got to keep your head, look out for yourself and look out for your teammates,’’ Mazzolini said.
That’s playoff hockey — fierce, a rollercoaster of emotions, and not for the timid.
“This is what people signed up for,’’ Sinkewich said.
Shuffling the deck
Former Aces, UAA and East High winger Justin Johnson, who made his NHL debut this season, was in the house for the Aces-Idaho games Thursday and Friday.
Bakersfield 3, Stockton 2: Former Aces goaltender Laurent Brossoit stopped 24 shots and the Bakersfield Condors rallied from a two-goal deficit to beat the visiting Stockton Thunder, 3-2, in the opener of the other Western Conference semifinal series.
Joel Broda delivered the game-winning goal for the Condors five minutes into the third period before 5,009 at Rabobank Arena. Ryan Watson furnished one goal and one assist.
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Idaho 1 0 3 — 4
Aces 2 1 3 — 6
First Period — 1, Idaho, Bast 1 (Montgomery, Robinson), 7:00 (pp); 2, Aces, McKelvie 2 (Syvret, Elson), 16:14; 3, Aces, Trupp 1 (Connolly, Mazzolini), 16:57. Penalties — MacKenzie, Aces (tripping), 5:27; Dodero, Idaho (roughing), 10:50; Curry, Aces (cross-checking), 17:36.
Second Period — 4, Aces, Trupp 2 (Mazzolini, Ramage), 7:18 (pp). Penalties — Dodero, Idaho (cross-checking), :11; Wahl, Idaho (slashing), 6:31; Connolly, Aces (roughing), 7:18; Mele, Aces (cross-checking), 17:26; Conboy, Idaho (unsportsmanlike conduct), 17:26; Elson, Aces (roughing), 19:27; Sinkewich, Idaho (interference), 19:27; Czarnowczan, Idaho (roughing), 19:27; Conboy, Idaho, misconduct (unsportsmanlike conduct), 19:27.
Third Period — 5, Idaho, de Kastrozza 5, 2:43 (sh); 6, Aces, MacKenzie 4 (Morrison, Belzile), 5:57 (pp); 7, Idaho, Mercier 2 (de Kastrozza), 11:44 (pp); 8, Aces, Belzile 1, 14:38; 9, Idaho, Montgomery 2 (Czarnowczan, Patterson), 14:50; 10, Aces, Mele 1 (Mosienko), 16:06. Penalties — Rapuzzi, Idaho (tripping), 2:16; Judson, Idaho (cross-checking), 5:16; Sinkewich, Idaho (slashing), 7:51; Belzile, Aces (slashing), 10:56; Cullity, Idaho (tripping), 17:08; MacKenzie, Aces, major (fighting), 20:00; Wahl, Idaho, minor-major (high-sticking, fighting), 20:00; Mercier, Idaho (roughing), 20:00; Connolly, Aces (unsportsmanlike conduct), 20:00; Elson, Aces (unsportsmanlike conduct), 20:00.
Shots on goal — Idaho 11-6-5—22. Aces 20-12-13—45.
Power-play Opportunities — Idaho 2 of 4. Aces 2 of 8.
Goalies — Idaho, Nagle, 1-1 (45 shots-39 saves). Aces, Roy, 3-0 (22-18).
A — 3,921 (6,399). T — 2:41.
Referee — Peter Tarnaris. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.
By DOYLE WOODY