Aces cruise past Idaho, move one win away from conference finals

Doyle Woody

Time to pump Nick Mazzolini's tires -- again.

The Alaska Aces captain spearheaded a four-goal, first-period assault Wednesday night that delivered a 4-2 road win over the Idaho Steelheads and helped push his hockey club within one win of advancing another round in the ECHL's Kelly Cup playoffs.

Mazzolini's two goals anchored an ambush that earned the Aces their third consecutive win over the Steelheads and their second road win at CenturyLink Arena in three nights. They own a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 Western Conference semifinal series that continues with Game 5 Thursday in Boise.

One more win and the Aces will propel themselves into the conference finals for the seventh time in their 11 ECHL seasons.

For what it's worth, only three teams in the 26-season history of the ECHL have rallied from a deficit of 3-1 or worse to win a series.

While Alaska endured a mildly anxious moment when winger Turner Elson was sentenced for a major boarding penalty with a 4-1 lead midway though the third period, it largely cruised. The Aces chased Steelheads starter Josh Robinson after a first period in which they unloaded 21 shots, and they again decidedly outshot their hosts -- Alaska's 45-20 advantage in shots elevated their shot margin in the series to 171-91.

In a first-period scoring binge that also featured Aces winger Evan Trupp's fourth goal in the last three games and defenseman Zach Davies' first goal of the postseason, Mazzolini attracted the spotlight with the opening goal and the marker that became the game-winning strike.

On those two plays, all he did was once again prove himself a responsible two-way veteran center and flash stick-handling skills, precision, vision, imagination, poise and an abundance of hockey sense.

Six minutes into the game, Mazzolini back-checked from the Idaho zone to collect the puck in neutral ice and give defenseman Kane Lafranchise a pass that allowed Lafranchise to march down left wing into Steelheads territory. Lafranchise centered to Trupp and Robinson rebuffed Trupp's wrister, pushing the rebound into the high slot.

Mazzolini, following the play, raced to the loose puck, maneuvered past Idaho forward Mitch Wahl, avoided the attempted shot-block of Idaho defenseman Charlie Dodero and whistled a low shot through Robinson.

Mazzolini ballooned the lead to 3-0 when he gained a stride on Dodero, used his body to shield the puck from the blueliner, lured Robinson to him at the left post, circled behind the Idaho net and attempted a wrap-around at the right post. Dodero's partner, captain Patrick Cullity, lunged to make a sterling stick save on Mazzolini's bid. But Mazzolini, sliding on his left knee just above the goal line, whistled his own rebound past a diving Robinson.

"He was excellent,'' Aces coach Rob Murray said by cellphone. "You could tell he was really engaged before the game. He was more vocal than usual.

"He wanted to make sure the guys were prepared, and he was definitely prepared.''

Mazzolini, reached by cellphone, said he senses this Aces team has a chance to make a long playoff run, and that recognition has heightened his intensity and that of his teammates.

"There's a different feeling around the locker room and around the town about this team,'' Mazzolini said. "In other years, it was like, 'Yeah, we won the Brabham Cup (as regular-season champs), but we'll get bounced.'

"But there's a different feeling this year, a special feeling. I'm getting butterflies in my stomach before games, and you know it's good when you're feeling that.''

Mazzolini struggled last postseason after earning All-ECHL Second Team honors in the regular season. His 3-3--6 totals and minus-2 rating in 11 playoff games in 2013 were below his standards.

He entered this postseason with career playoff totals of 6-7--13 in 22 games.

But in eight games this spring, he leads the league in assists and points with 4-12--16 totals. His two goals Wednesday marked his third straight game with multiple points, and he has generated multiple points in seven of eight games.

Mazzolini's seven power-play assists lead the circuit, and he is tied for the league lead in first goals (2) and game-winning goals (2). His plus-8 rating ranks second.

Idaho, which received goals from David de Kastrozza (his team-leading sixth) and Brett Robinson, mustered 20 shots on Aces goalie Olivier Roy, who improved to 4-0. Mazzolini's line alone unlimbered 17 shots -- a game-high eight from Trupp (one goal, one helper), six from Mazzolini and three from Connolly (one assist).

Mazzolini said the Aces will prepare for a sturdy response from the Steelheads in Game 5 -- "It's their last breath,'' he said -- but the captain expects his team to respond.

"It's great when all the pieces are in place and everything's clicking,'' Mazzolini said.

Shuffling the deck

The Aces on seven occasions have owned a 3-1 lead in a best-of-7 series, and have won all of those series. They won six of them in five games and one in six.

In their eight playoff games, the Aces have outshot opponents 324-171. That's an average of 40.5 shots per game for the Aces and 21.4 per game for opponents.

Murray said veteran Gerald Coleman (4-1) will start Game 5.

Davies' goal was the ninth furnished by an Aces defenseman in their eight playoff games.

In the other Western Conference semifinal series Wednesday, the Stockton Thunder used two goals from Ryan Hayes and one goal and one assist from Andrew Clark to earn a 6-2 home-ice win over the Bakersfield Condors.

Stockton scored five unanswered goals bridging the second and third periods, and Brian Foster furnished 29 saves. Still, the Condors lead the series 2-1 entering Game 4 Friday in Stockton.

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Aces 4 0 0 -- 4

Idaho 0 1 1 -- 2

First Period -- 1, Aces, Mazzolini 3 (Trupp, Lafranchise), 6:22; 2, Aces, Davies 1 (Syvret, Findlay), 12:17; 3, Aces, Mazzolini 4, 16:36; 4, Aces, Trupp 4 (Connolly), 19:11. Penalties -- Cullity, Idaho (holding), :47.

Second Period -- 5, Idaho, de Kastrozza 6 (Patterson, Linsmayer), 14:45. Penalties -- Trupp, Aces (tripping), 1:34; Dodero, Idaho (high-sticking), 10:14.

Third Period -- 6, Idaho, B. Robinson (Mercier), 13:44. Penalties -- Elson, Aces, major (boarding), 10:48; Wahl, Idaho (slashing), 12:15; Rapuzzi, Idaho (boarding), 17:15.

Shots on goal -- Aces 21-18-6--45. Idaho 6-4-10--20.

Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 0 of 3. Idaho 0 of 2.

Goalies -- Aces, Roy, 3-0 (20 shots-18 saves). Idaho, Robinson, 4-4 (21-17); Nagle, enter 0:00 2nd period (24-24).

A -- 2,628 (5,006). T -- 2:26.

Referee -- J.M. McNulty. Linesmen -- Todd Owen, Andrew Wetzel.