Overtime has burdened the Alaska Aces with nothing but anguish in this postseason, when extra time has triggered nothing but elation for the Bakersfield Condors.
The equation held true again Saturday night inside Sullivan Arena, where Gary Steffes’ game-winning wrister at 2 minutes, 53 seconds of the sudden-death session furnished the Condors a 3-2 victory that halted the Aces’ comeback ambitions and dramatically changed the complexion of the ECHL’s Western Conference Finals.
With one flick of his wrists, which sent the puck zipping over Gerald Coleman’s glove, Steffes dismissed Alaska’s two-goal, third-period rally and forged a 1-1 tie in the best-of-7 series that now heads to Bakersfield for the next three games. He also silenced an announced crowd of 4,122, which was revved up after Evan Trupp and Brendan Connolly generated third-period goals.
Alaska in Friday’s opener prospered on the comeback march, using two third-period goals to earn a 2-1 victory.
Bakersfield is 3-0 in overtime games this postseason. Joel Broda and Andrew Carroll authored the previous game-winning strikes, both in the opening round against Utah.
Alaska, meanwhile, is 0-2 in overtime — Idaho’s Gaelen Patterson pierced them in Game 1 of the conference semifinals for a 1-0 win — and those losses are the only two they have suffered in the postseason. The Aces have lost the last five times they’ve gone to overtime in the playoffs, all in the last three seasons.
Steffes scored off the rush, whistling his shot from the left circle.
“In overtime, every shot’s huge, and you never know what can happen,’’ he said.
The Aces have traveled this road before. In the conference semifinals, they split their first two games at home, losing in OT to Idaho. But they reeled off three straight wins in Boise to eliminate the Steelheads in five games.
Still, Saturday’s wound was fresh immediately after the game, just as it was when the Aces lost to the Steelheads.
“Eerily similar,’’ said Aces captain Nick Mazzolini. “Obviously, it’s not a bright spot right now. But give us a day and a half, get our confidence back, and we’ll be good to go.’’
The Aces entered Saturday averaging 39 shots on goal per playoff game, and though they unleashed 35 in Friday’s opener, many of them were relatively harmless bids from the perimeter. Saturday, the Condors held them to a playoff-low 26 shots, which usually isn’t enough to fully crack Bakersfield All-Rookie goaltender Laurent Brossoit.
“We didn’t generate enough off our fore-check and the one power play we had was lethargic — they defended it well,’’ said Aces coach Rob Murray. “We didn’t put enough pressure on them.’’
And that put the Aces in perilous position entering the third period — trailing 2-0, the first time in their 11 playoff games they have trailed by more than one goal.
Bakersfield gained its lead when Jordan Knackstedt and Chris Collins scored 2:33 apart midway through the second period.
Knackstedt drove into the Aces zone, puzzled defenseman Corey Syvret with an outside-in, toe-drag move and ripped a bullet of a wrister over the right shoulder of Coleman (19 saves). Collins scored on the power play when Coleman shuffled across his crease to his right post, expecting Greg Miller to fire a shot, only to have Miller feed Collins in the slot. Collins enjoyed 24 square feet of net at his disposal and fired into the middle of it.
But, just as they did Friday, the Aces answered in the third period.
Trupp racked his team-leading sixth goal, all in the last six games, when Connolly rushed into the zone on right wing and lost the puck as he veered to the middle of the ice. Trupp, trailing the play closely, wired a laser over Brossoit’s right shoulder about five minutes into the period.
Connolly’s equalizer came with less than seven minutes left in regulation. He used his right skate to kick the loose puck to his stick during a goal-mouth scramble and roofed a wrister.
With four minutes left in regulation, Coleman made rapid, consecutive saves on Knackstedt as the winger again worked his toe-drag move. He also rebuffed a 4-on-2 Bakersfield rush in the last minute of regulation, stopping the initial shot and the rebound.
Heading into overtime, things had clearly tilted the Aces’ way.
“I think we had a little momentum,’’ Trupp said. “But it’s overtime, and one shot will decide the game.’’
The Condors in their dressing room before overtime were reminded they had been in this situation before, and flourished.
“Our philosophy has been one game at a time,’’ said Bakersfield coach Troy Mann. “But, realistically, you want to get a split when you start a series on the road. We’ve been resilient all season.
“Heading into overtime, we talked about believing.’’
Belief brought them bounty.
The Aces were left to lament their belief that they didn’t match the Condors’ urgency in the first two periods.
“We only played 20 minutes, and it takes a full 60 to beat these guys,’’ Trupp said. “I was a lot like the team. I didn’t play a full 60 minutes. I needed to be better, and a lot of guys needed to be better.’’
Shuffling the deck
Alaska’s loss snapped its five-game playoff winning streak, which tied the club’s second-longest streak in its 11 ECHL seasons and was fifth time the franchise had won five straight playoff games.
The team record for consecutive playoff wins is 10 by the 2011 club that won the franchise’s second Kelly Cup.
Worth noting: Bakersfield is 5-0 on home ice at Rabobank Arena, which makes it the only undefeated team on home ice among the 16 clubs that qualified for the postseason.
Of course, the Aces are 5-0 on the road and that marks them as the only playoff team with a perfect record in hostile rinks.
The Aces had only one power play Saturday — zero shots on goal and no sustained possession time until just 10 seconds remained on Knackstedt’s roughing minor — and are scoreless on 11 power-play chances in the last four games.
Trupp generated one goal and one assist in each of the first two games in the series and has produced 6-3—9 totals and four multiple-point games in the last six games. That’s after he didn’t register a point in the first five games of the postseason.
Knackstedt fired a game-high five shots on goal, Collins and Mazzolini each unleashed four and Trupp had three.
Bakersfield’s victory came with a cost. Forward Ryan Watson, who had a natural hat trick in the comeback win that eliminated Stockton in the previous round, injured his left leg late in the second period. He was on crutches after the game.
Lafranchise appeared to injure his left leg late in the second period and skated gingerly to the bench, but played the remainder of the game.
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Bakersfield0 2 0 1 — 3
Aces0 0 2 0 — 2
First Period — None. Penalties — None.
Second Period – 1, Bakersfield, Knackstedt 4 (Thurber), 9:55; 2, Bakersfield, Collins 3 (Miller, Hughes), 12:28 (pp). Penalties — Mele, Aces (boarding), 4:26; Knackstedt, Bakersfield (roughing), 7:36; Connolly, Aces (holding the stick), 11:17; Bowman, Bakersfield (roughing), 11:17.
Third Period — 3, Aces, Trupp 6 (Connolly, Curry), 5:28; 4, Aces, Connolly 3 (Trupp, Lafranchise), 13:37. Penalties — None.
Overtime — 5, Bakersfield, Steffes 3 (Burgdoerfer, Hughes), 2:53. Penalties -- None.
Shots on goal — Bakersfield 3-10-8-1—22. Aces 4-9-10-3—26.
Power-play Opportunities – Bakersfield 1 of 2. Aces 0 of 1.
Goalies — Bakersfield, Brossoit, 9-3 (26 shots-24 saves). Aces, Coleman, 4-2 (22-19).
A — 4,122 (6,399). T — 2:44.
Referee — Nick Leduc, Frederic Leblanc. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.
By DOYLE WOODY