The playoff pretenders have literally been sent packing -- hockey players hitting season's end early get the final, forlorn duty of clearing out their dressing-room stalls -- and just four of the ECHL's initial 16 qualifiers remain.
Not surprisingly, every club still in pursuit of the Kelly Cup has advanced this far courtesy of that familiar prerequisite for postseason prosperity: Glorious goaltending.
The Alaska Aces and Bakersfield Condors, who open the best-of-7 Western Conference finals Friday night at Sullivan Arena, enter the penultimate round of these playoffs enjoying the comfort provided by their masked men.
Alaska's Gerald Coleman (4-1, 1.18 goals-against average, .947 save percentage) and Olivier Roy (4-0, 2.25, .893) have combined to go 8-1, 1.65 and .924.
Meanwhile, Bakersfield rookie Laurent Brossoit, who briefly shined for the Aces before an NHL trade landed him in California, has carried the entire load for the Condors, and shouldered it well. He's 8-2 with a 1.75 and .934, plus three shutouts that tie him for fourth all-time in that category. (The last guy to bag three shutouts in the playoffs was Coleman, who did so backstopping the Aces to the Kelly Cup in 2011).
In the Eastern Conference finals, the goaltending is no less grand. Cincinnati's Rob Malore is 8-4, 1.89 and .938, and Greenville's Jason Missiaen and Jeff Malcolm -- Missiaen has logged most of the minutes -- are a combined 8-4, 1.99, .941.
Of the four teams alive, the Aces are the only one that has truly split goaltending duties. Coach Rob Murray said he will continue that rotation. That makes Roy, who delivered Stockton to the Kelly Cup Finals a year ago, the starter in Game 1.
"Basically, they've both stepped up and been excellent,'' Murray said. "I see no reason to break up our rotation.
"I know every goalie wants to be the No. 1 guy, be the man. Realistically, we've got two No. 1 guys.''
Brossoit proved instrumental in Bakersfield's early-season reversal. As the Condors have been endlessly reminded, they began the season 1-10-1. They were 7-14-1 (.341 winning percentage) when Brossoit arrived and have since gone 37-18-5 (.658). Brossoit delivered 32 of those wins.
Of Bakersfield's eight playoff wins, four have come when the Condors trailed entering the third period and two have come when they were tied entering the third. In those six games, Brossoit stopped all of the combined 44 shots he faced in third periods and overtimes.
"He came in and stabilized the position and gave us a chance to win every night,'' said Condors coach Troy Mann.
Like the Aces, whose depth at defense has served to combine with their goaltenders to hold opposing offenses in check, the Condors are also strong on the blue line.
"Obviously, their strength is from the goalie out,'' Murray said. "We brag about our defensive corps, but we've made many comments about their defensive corps.
"It's a good group of defensemen that get the job done. And Brossoit -- I don't want to put words in Troy Mann's mouth -- but he's the biggest reason for their turnaround.''
A headline and story in the Bakersfield Californian following Bakersfield's series-clinching, comeback 5-3 win over the Stockton Thunder -- the Condors trailed 3-0 deep into the second period -- heralded the "Cardiac Condors,'' and with good reason.
Through two playoff rounds, ECHL teams that trail after two periods are a combined 13-37. But the Condors have gone 4-1 in such circumstances.
"As a group, we know what it takes to come back from being down,'' said Condors defenseman Erik Burgdoerfer.
Mann said his club has been resilient all season.
"My philosophy is, when you truly believe you can win a hockey game, it doesn't matter what the score is,'' he said.
When Mann was head coach of the ECHL's Columbia Inferno in 2006-07, his equipment manager was current Aces equipment manager Mike Burkhead.
Columbia's captain was Brad Ralph, currently head coach of the Idaho Steelheads, who the Aces recently eliminated in the Western Conference semifinals. Two defensemen on the Inferno were former Aces blueliners Derick Martin and Tyson Marsh.
As a player, Mann won a Kelly Cup with the Mississippi Sea Wolves in 1999. That team trailed Richmond 3-0 in the best-of-7 finals before roaring back to win Game 7 in double overtime and seize the Cup. One of Mann's teammates on that club was former UAF forward Cody Bowtell.
Shuffling the deck
• Aces winger/defenseman Zach McKelvie (elbow) is questionable for Game 1, Murray said.
• Home teams are 29-33 through two rounds of the Kelly Cup playoffs. Bakersfield is the only undefeated team at home (5-0) and the Aces are the only unbeaten team on the road (5-0). Alaska is 3-1 at home and Bakersfield is 3-2 on the road.
• Aces winger Brendan Connolly enters the series riding a four-game point streak (2-3--5). Winger Brett Findlay has a point in three straight games (1-2--3).
• Jordan Knackstadt, Bakersfield's leading playoff scorer (3-7--10 in 10 games), enters with a three-game point streak (1-4--5). Joel Broda, who racked 21 goals in just 41 regular-season games for the Condors and owns 6-3--9 totals in 10 playoff games, owns a three-game point streak (3-3--6).
• Former Aces winger Spencer Bennett has appeared in four playoff games for Bakersfield and contributed an assist.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog
ECHL Kelly Cup Playoffs
Western Conference Finals
Bakersfield Condors vs. Alaska Aces
Best of 7
Game 1 - Friday, Sullivan Arena, 7:15 p.m.
Radio: Live, AM-750 and FM 103-7 KFQD
By DOYLE WOODY