For one night at least, the Alaska Aces seized the mantle as comeback kings, delivering a third-period rally against a Bakersfield hockey club whose late-game exploits in these ECHL’s Kelly Cup playoffs earned them the moniker of Cardiac Condors.
Sparked by Evan Trupp’s goal in the opening minute of the third period and Jordan Morrison’s game-winning strike with less than three minutes to play, the Aces generated a 2-1 victory over the Condors in Friday’s opener of the Western Conference finals.
On an evening when fantastic weather outside and an announced crowd of 4,197 inside Sullivan Arena made conditions unusually warm, Alaska earned a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series that continues Saturday night at Sullivan. After that, the series next week moves to Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield.
Alaska improved to 9-1 in the playoffs. It swept Las Vegas in four games in the first round and eliminated the Idaho Steelheads in five games in the second round.
This series pits an Aces franchise that has advanced to the conference finals for seventh time in 11 ECHL seasons against a Condors franchise that has reached the third of the circuit’s four playoff rounds for the first time in that span. While the Aces are accustomed to success — they have twice hoisted the Kelly Cup — the Condors have flourished under first-year coach Troy Mann after failing to qualify for the playoffs in the previous two seasons.
The opener turned on a critical play in the waning minutes.
Condors defenseman Erik Burgdoerfer retreated behind his net and rimmed the puck around the boards to initiate a breakout from his zone. But Trupp stepped up to gather it on right wing and feed defenseman John Ramage in the slot. Ramage found himself in ideal shooting territory, yet eschewed firing on Condors goaltender Laurent Brossoit.
Instead, Ramage presented himself as if he planned to shoot and slid a pass to Morrison on his left. Morrison’s wrister from the bottom of the left circle beat a lunging Brossoit to the stick side for a 2-1 lead.
The Aces held onto that edge despite a Bakersfield power play — a 6 on 4 advantage, since Brossoit was on the bench for an extra attacker — in the final 45 seconds.
“I was in a really good spot, but guys were converging on me, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Mo streaking down my wing,’’ Ramage said.
If he had not seen his teammate, he surely would have heard him.
“It was heads-up by Rammer,’’ Morrison said. “I was coming off the bench yelling, “Rammer! Rammer! Rammer!’ He heard me, luckily.’’
Brossoit, the erstwhile Ace, and Olivier Roy, who last season helped Stockton to the Kelly Cup Finals, each proved sharp. In a trade between the NHL’s Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers in November — Roy’s contract went to Calgary and Brossoit’s to Edmonton — Roy arrived in Anchorage and Brossoit soon landed in California.
Roy stopped 25 shots and Brossoit rebuffed 33.
A second-period sequence showed just why their services are coveted.
Roy flashed his blocker to deny Jordan Knackstadt and kicked away Joel Broda’s rebound bid. Moments later, Brossoit fought off a bid by Aces captain Nick Mazzolini. And moments after that, Brossoit used his right pad to turn back Ramage’s drive from atop the right circle.
Brossoit, incidentally, appeared to suffer some sort of injury early in the game after taking a Ramage blast high on his torso and scrambling to try to cover the puck. As play went the other way, Brossoit remained down on his knees. During a media timeout a few minutes later, he spent the entire break talking to Condors trainer Andy Hong.
Still, Brossoit was good to go. And don’t expect anyone to reveal what ailed him. Hockey clubs, particularly in the postseason, limit descriptions of injuries to “upper body’’ and “lower body,’’ and players would sooner furnish the PIN number to their debit card than reveal a specific injury.
The taut, high-tempo game matched similar teams — both have grand goaltending, depth at defense, speed and discipline.
“They work hard and they’re like us — they’re structurally sound and smart,’’ Aces defenseman Kane Lafranchise said of the Condors. “And they pushed back (for momentum). And Brossoit — you have to expect that kind of goaltending this time of year.’’
The series opener remained scoreless deep into the second period, until Bakersfield’s Chris Collins took a pass from Matt Thurber on left wing, drove below the left circle and squeezed a point-blank shot between Roy’s pads.
The Aces were unable to gain the equalizer on overlapping power plays, including a two-man advantage that lasted 38 seconds, late in the second period.
The 1-0 Aces deficit brought to mind their opener in Alaska’s previous series, when Idaho grabbed a 1-0 overtime win at Sullivan before the Aces reeled off four straight wins to eliminate the Steelheads.
“It was in the back of my mind after two periods — 'I really don’t want to start with another 1-0 game,’ ’’Trupp said.
Trupp finally cracked Brossoit in the opening minute of the third period. After Lafranchise rushed the puck up right wing, he peeled back at the goal line and fed Trupp coming down the slot. Brossoit got enough of Trupp’s shot that the puck came to rest just outside the goal line near the right post. Trupp dove into the crease and nudged the puck home for a 1-1 tie.
“I was like, 'I’m going to have to get in there because it’s not going to roll in,’ ’’ Trupp said.
That goal sparked the Aces, and their crowd, and momentarily put the Condors on their heels.
“For us, the back-breaker was giving up that goal early in the third,’’ said Mann, the Condors bench boss. “I really wanted to get through the first five minutes with that 1-0 lead (and work from there).’’
Still, the Condors, with three possible home games in three days next week, on Saturday night get another chance to grab the home-ice advantage from the Aces. And the Aces know protecting their home-ice advantage is pivotal.
“We’ve got a tough week when we go down there — three in three,’’ Morrison said. “It’ll be tough. The more we can help ourselves here, the better.’’
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog.
By DOYLE WOODY