Banged-up Aces back in conference finals after 2-1 win over Idaho

Doyle Woody
Darin Oswald

For most of the second period Thursday night in their playoff series-clinching victory in Boise, Idaho, the Alaska Aces were afforded ample yet unwanted leg room on their team bench inside CenturyLink Arena.

In the middle of a 2-1 win that eliminated the Idaho Steelheads from the ECHL's best-of-7 Western Conference semifinal series in five efficient games, the Aces were reduced -- ravaged, really -- by injuries. Three of their 16 skaters left the bench for the team's dressing room because they required health care.

Captain Nick Mazzolini was there getting his face sewn back together after a case of friendly fire -- a teammate's aerial pass smacked him. Winger Zach McKelvie had his damaged elbow examined. And defenseman Drew MacKenzie was treated for an undisclosed upper-body injury.

Mazzolini, the league's leading playoff scorer, made it back to the ice for Alaska's commanding third period, wearing a full face-mask instead of the customary half-shield that only protects the upper half of a player's face. He was on the ice for the game-winning, power-play goal by linemate Brendan Connolly, who earlier this season took a stick to the face that resulted in a broken bone below his nose and no small amount of reconstructive dental work.

MacKenzie returned to the game too, which was tied 1-1 entering the third period after second-period goals from Idaho's Brett Robinson and Alaska's Alex Belzile.

The only thing holding back McKelvie, whose previous employment was in the U.S. Army infantry, was a trip to the hospital.

The Aces were so short of players for one-third of the game that coach Rob Murray spent the second period constantly juggling his forward lines. Even so, they won a franchise-record fifth consecutive playoff game on the road.

They also advanced to the conference finals for the seventh time in their 11 ECHL seasons. No other club on the circuit has earned a spot in the conference finals more than four times in that span, although the Cincinnati Cyclones still have a chance to make it for the fifth time since the 2003-04 season, which is when Alaska joined the league.

The Alaska franchise has won four consecutive Brabham Cups as the ECHL's regular-season champion -- no other team in the league's 26-season history has even won consecutive Brabhams. And this team appears capable of making a run at a third Kelly Cup, which Alaska claimed in 2011 and 2006 as the circuit's playoff champions.

But what Alaska's victory Thursday also furnished was a window into the culture of hockey.

Playing hurt is simply what hockey players do, particularly in the playoffs, when conventional wisdom says you can spot the team most willing to sacrifice bodies by the number of ice bags required after a game.

As then-Aces defenseman Derick Martin casually observed in 2009, when he played one night after he a puck hit him in the face, costing him a tooth and requiring more than 50 stitches, his injury was far from his heart. And, well, his parents were visiting Anchorage from Ontario, Canada, and didn't often get to see him play, so he had to play.

Some people give their bodies to science. Hockey players routinely give them to their sport -- in 71 regular-season games this season, 18 Aces missed a total of 353 games because of injury. And in Thursday's waning seconds, Connolly, Kane Lafranchise and Mazzolini all intentionally stepped in front of Steelheads shots intended to beat Aces goaltender Gerald Coleman (26 saves) and willingly blocked them.

That is no small measure of courage -- a hockey puck is made of vulcanized rubber and when fired hard can easily break bones, as then-Aces captain Steve Ward painfully learned in 2012. The shot he blocked broke his right leg, and subsequent surgery required a plate and screws to be inserted in his leg. Ward tried to play a shift after he blocked that shot -- he thought maybe he had only suffered a "stinger'' -- but realized the injury was more serious when he went to push off with his right skate.

Mazzolini matter-of-factly reported by cellphone Thursday night that the number of stitches required to repair his face was "14, I think.'' He said missing the rest of the game was never a consideration for what hockey players often refer to as a few "zips,'' as in zippers.

"You know any other guy on the team would do it for you, so you're not trying to let anyone down,'' Mazzolini said.

He said it was like a parade of teammates entering the visiting dressing room as he was getting stitches.

"People kept coming back, joining me,'' he said with a laugh. "I kept looking over my shoulder and seeing new numbers come into the room.''

Murray, a former NHL center who played more than 1,300 games as a professional, said he at various times played with a broken foot, broken toes, a broken wrist and a dislocated finger, reciting those injuries as routinely as a shopping list. He once received 50 stitches to his chin during an NHL game in Detroit and returned to the bench, only to be a little chapped his coach didn't play him after that.

"My mum and dad were there,'' Murray explained by cellphone Thursday night.

"You play hurt,'' Murray said. "That's just what you do. I don't want to say that it's a macho thing, it's just an ingrained hockey mentality. Grin and bear it, and get through it.''

A text message to Mazzolini after Thursday's win asking if he could call a reporter was answered by a reference to the modern version of ice bags.

"Sure, gimme a sec,'' Mazzolini replied. "I'm in the cold tub.''

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First Period -- None. Penalties - Sinkewich, Idaho (cross-checking), 13:11; Judson, Idaho (interference), 15:16; Connolly, Aces (cross-checking), 19:03.

Second Period -- 1, Idaho, B. Robinson 4 (Rapuzzi, Dodero), 2:20; 2, Aces, Belzile 2 (Findlay), 9:57. Penalties -- Sinkewich, Idaho (roughing), 3:21; MacKenzie, Aces (roughing), 3:21; Dodero, Idaho (slashing), 18:29.

Third Period -- 3, Aces, Connolly 2 (Trupp), :29 (pp). Penalties -- None.

Shots on goal -- Aces 10-9-13--32. Idaho 6-15-6--27.

Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 1 of 3. Idaho 0 of 1.

Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 4-1 (27 shots-26 saves). Idaho, J. Robinson, 4-5 (32-30).

A -- 2,000 (5,006). T -- 2:19.

Referee -- Pierre Lambert. Linesmen -- Todd Owen, Scott DeBaugh.