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Aces face tough road to Kelly Cup as they head to Bakersfield

Doyle Woody

For the Alaska Aces franchise, these ECHL playoffs are unlikely to be 2011 all over again.

Prosperity seemingly came so easily to the Aces that spring. The first-round bye they earned in the ECHL playoffs by virtue of winning the Brabham Cup as regular-season champions meant just 12 wins were required to seize the Kelly Cup. They needed a mere 13 games, which included victories in both overtime games they played, before they hoisted the Cup overhead.

They sent Idaho to the offseason in the minimum four games of the conference semifinals, even though it took a while to crack Steelheads goaltender Jerry Kuhn. They delivered Victoria to the land of tee times in four straight games. And they made short work of the Kalamazoo Wings in the Kelly Cup Finals -- after just five games of the best-of-7 series, the Aces and the Cup were together in a hotel bar.

Even the one game the Aces lost, Game 3 in Kalamazoo after 10 straight postseason wins, seemed trifling to Scott Burt, who captained that Aces club and had already been a two-time Cup winner with Idaho. He walked out of the rink that night in Michigan and, with a wink and a smile, said the Cup would be Alaska's in five games. He didn't sound cocky. He sounded matter-of-fact, as if reporting that ice is slippery.

That 2011 club went 12-1 in the playoffs, and its .923 winning percentage is by far the best of any Cup champion in Alaska's 10 seasons on the minor-league hockey circuit.

Yet that team was an aberration. Of the 10 champions in Alaska's tenure in the ECHL, seven of them were extended to a decisive Game 7 -- or, in best-of-5 scenarios, a decisive Game 5 -- in at least one series. Those seven champs stared down pressure, and Alaska was among them -- the Aces who won the 2006 Cup needed a Game 7 double-overtime win against Fresno in the conference finals.

The Aces entered these playoffs as Brabham Cup winners once again, for the fourth straight time. No first-round bye, though, so they need 16 wins to earn the third Cup in franchise history.

They have crossed off nine of the 16, and stand tied 1-1 with the Bakersfield Condors in the Western Conference finals heading into Friday night's Game 3 in California.

The next three nights on the road, Games 3-4-5, look like the stress test for this Aces club. Realistically, they need to win either Game 3 or 4, because falling behind 3-1 in a series is usually a death sentence.

They remain without their leading sniper, Peter Sivak (upper-body injury), who has now missed more playoff games (six) than he has played (five). Coach Rob Murray says defenseman Drew MacKenzie (four goals in nine games), who missed the first two games against Bakersfield with illness, will return to the lineup for Game 3. Still, the Aces must collectively find some avenue to the Condors' net, to figure out, as captain Nick Mazzolini said after a 3-2 overtime loss on home ice in Game 2, "a way to penetrate the dirty areas.''

These Aces are 9-2, and both their losses have come in overtime, so it isn't as if they've struggled.

But everything seems harder this time around, as the odds say it should. The exception was the Aces' opening-round sweep of Las Vegas, the worst team in the league. The biggest shock in that series would have been a Game 5.

In the last round, against Idaho, the Aces hit the road tied 1-1 after the Steelheads won Game 1 in overtime in Anchorage and the Aces countered in regulation in Game 2. Alaska then swept three games in Boise to dispatch Idaho.

Bakersfield, which has reached the conference finals for the first time in franchise history, looks much more formidable. These Condors aren't the pushovers that didn't even qualify for the playoffs the last two seasons. And, given their past, particularly the previous two seasons when about the only upside to the franchise was clever marketing -- do yourself a favor: Google "Condor flies away" -- they're a feel-good story.

They have a game-stealing star in rookie goaltender Laurent Brossoit. They have a deep defense that doesn't surrender scoring chances in bunches like the generous blue lines of Las Vegas and Idaho. They have ample ammunition up front, and a bench boss in Troy Mann who pushes all the right buttons.

And they have belief -- wins in all three of their OT games, all by a 3-2 score, has served to bolster that belief and top it with a dose of destiny in Condors' minds.

Plus, the Condors are 5-0 on their home ice at Rabobank Arena in these playoffs. Note, though, that the Aces are 5-0 on the road in these playoffs.

What the Aces ought to possess in Game 3 is a collective boulder on their shoulders after the sting of losing Game 2 last Saturday. Remember, the Aces came back from a 2-0 third-period deficit to force extra time, and they seemed to own momentum. One Gary Steffes top-shelf wrister and the Aces owned a loss.

"We've got to reset our mind-set,'' Murray said of Game 3. "The only difference is we won the second game at home against Idaho, so we felt good about ourselves.

"Now, losing on Saturday, you can tell the guys are a little mad about it. That's a good thing.''

Regaining home-ice advantage in this series doesn't look like an easy thing against Bakersfield. Note, though, that road teams are 36-31 in these Kelly Cup playoffs.

Even so, if the Aces are to reach the promised land and hoist hardware for a third time in franchise history, the odds say they won't arrive there as easily as they did in 2011.

Hockey, like life, is seldom so simple.

This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog.

Conference finals

ECHL Kelly Cup Playoffs

Western Conference Finals

Alaska Aces (9-2) at

Bakersfield Condors (9-3)

Best-of-7, series tied 1-1

Game 3, Friday, 6 p.m., at Rabobank Arena, Bakersfield.

TV: Live, GCI Channel 1

RADIO: Live, AM-550 and FM 103.7 KFQD


Doyle Woody
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