Disastrous first period sinks Aces in 5-4 loss to Condors

Doyle Woody

Well, of course, you can’t spot an eager opponent three first-period goals, particularly on the road, and expect to end your evening rejoicing at the rink.

Odds of trading hockey hugs with your teammates are also slim if you fall behind by three goals again, this time in the second period.

The Alaska Aces succumbed on both fronts Friday night, and though they staged a furious comeback, they never regained even terms and fell 5-4 to the Bakersfield Condors in Game 3 of the ECHL’s Western Conference finals.

And now the Aces find themselves trailing for the first time in their three Kelly Cup playoff series this spring. The Condors, who played the first conference finals home game in their history, own a 2-1 edge in the best-of-7 showdown entering Game 4 Saturday night at Rabobank Arena in California.

Yet, all of that ignores what has been a problem for the Aces the last handful of games and is quickly becoming the elephant in their dressing room: Their power play is murdering them. The only juice the Aces are generating with the man advantage lately is the kind that kills the guys with their hands at the controls.

Scratch that. An addendum: The Aces’ power play is at least generating momentum — but it’s for Bakersfield.

The Aces twice Friday night enjoyed delicious chances to forge man-advantage equalizers when trailing 4-3. One opportunity bridged the second and third periods and included 48 seconds of a two-man advantage, yet the Aces barely threatened. When they owned a 4-on-3 manpower advantage to begin that sequence, they got gun-shy and passed up several opportunities for one-timers. And when defenseman Kane Lafranchise did squeeze off a one-timer, he fired wide left and the puck rimmed the boards out of the zone.

The other chance came with less than six minutes to play. But captain Nick Mazzolini lost the face-off and promptly took a slashing penalty that negated Alaska’s advantage just eight seconds after it started.

“We’re not making any plays, it’s quite obvious,’’ Aces coach Rob Murray said by cellphone. “They have a very good penalty-kill, an aggressive penalty-kill, but we’re not making any plays to counteract that at all.

“No poise on the power play. Probably the biggest thing is we can’t win a face-off on the power play — every power play, we’re going back and retrieving the puck.’’

The Aces went 0 for 5 on the power play Friday and are 0 for 10 in the series. In their last five games, they have come up empty on all 16 power-play chances.

The only time they’ve scored with a manpower advantage in that span came in the waning seconds Friday, and it wasn’t even officially a power-play goal. Turner Elson’s strike with 15.1 seconds left came with goaltender Olivier Roy (24 saves) on the bench for an extra attacker and about 55 seconds after Chris Collins’ empty-net goal furnished Bakersfield a 5-3 cushion.

All three games in this series have been decided by one goal — the Aces won the opener in Anchorage 2-1 and Bakersfield won Game 2, 3-2 in overtime.

While the Aces came back from a 1-0 third-period deficit to win Game 1 and roared back from a 2-0 third-period deficit before losing Game 2, they were pushing it by falling behind three goals to a Condors team that is 6-0 on home ice in these playoffs.

In Alaska’s previous 11 playoff games, it permitted opponents three or more goals just twice. Friday, Bakersfield used the energy granted it by a crowd of 6,411 and hit the three-goal benchmark in a first-period span of 5:57 that was notable both for the Condors’ zeal to get to the edge of Roy’s crease and the Aces’ capacity for allowing that invasion.

Andrew Carroll got inside position on Lafranchise and deflected a back-hander from Gary Steffes, the overtime hero of Game 2. Joel Broda beat Aces defenseman Corey Syvret to a rebound and fired a shot that hit the left post before it ricocheted off Roy’s skate and in. And Aces winger Brett Findlay got caught puck-staring, which allowed Jordan Knackstedt free rein at the right post.

“We were just watching the plays happen, being spectators,’’ Murray said. “We just lost our composure as a team.’’

Tommy Mele’s deflection of Sean Curry’s blast from the right point after Tyler Mosienko’s face-off win pulled the Aces back to a 3-1 deficit inside the opening two minutes of the second period. Mele’s deflection over the right shoulder of Laurent Brossoit (28 saves) gave the goaltender no chance. But Chase Schaber’s power-play shot from the slot more than halfway through the period restored Bakersfield’s three-goal lead at 4-1.

Still, in a span of 72 seconds later in the period, Alaska’s Jordan Morrison scored on Zach Davies’ rebound and Mazzolini’s back-hand tap-in finished a 2-on-1 with Evan Trupp. Suddenly, the Aces were within a goal, trailing just 4-3.

But their power play came up small, and Morrison could not cleanly connect with Findlay on a 2-on-1 spurred by Alex Belzile’s short, shifty pass with about three minutes to go.

Friday’s loss marked the first time the Aces (9-3) have lost consecutive games in these playoffs and the first time they have been beaten in six road games in the postseason.

“Hopefully, we can take some momentum from out-scoring them 4-2 in the second and third periods,’’ Murray said. “But realistically, we should be more concerned about not being in that position to have to come back, and be better in the first period.’’

While Saturday’s Game 4 is not absolutely a must-win for the Aces, it’s close enough. Trailing 3-1 in a best-of-7 is flirting hard with summer vacation. In the 26-season history of the ECHL, only four clubs have rallied from a series deficit of 3-1 or worse to win a series.

Shuffling the deck

Mosienko’s goal drought dating back to the regular season stretched to 26 games, but he set up Mele’s goal and went plus-4.

Mele, Mosienko’s left wing, had one goal and one assist, and was plus-2 with a team-high four shots on goal. And Elson, Mosienko’s right wing, had a goal, a plus-2 rating and three shots.

Bakersfield’s Schaber led all scorers with three points (one goal, two helpers) and was plus-2.

Trupp’s assist gives him 2-3—5 totals in the three series games and 6-4—10 totals in the last seven games.

Murray on Thursday expected defenseman Drew MacKenzie to return to the lineup, but the blueliner didn’t feel well in the morning skate and missed his third straight game.

Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog.

Aces0  3  1 — 4

Bakersfield3  1  1 — 5

First Period — 1, Bakersfield, Carroll 3 (Steffes, Little), 9:23; 2, Bakersfield, Broda 7 (Schaber, Knackstedt), 10:35; 3, Bakersfield, Knackstedt 5 (Leach, Schaber), 15:20. Penalties — McKelvie, Aces (goaltender interference), 16:53.

Second Period — 4, Aces, Mele 3 (Curry, Mosienko), 1:43; 5, Bakersfield, Schaber 4 (Thurber, Bowman), 12:20 (pp); 6, Aces, Morrison 4 (Davies), 15:11; 7, Aces, Mazzolini 5 (Trupp, Ramage), 16:22. Penalties — Cunningham, Bakersfield (interference), 4:54; Morrison, Aces (boarding), 6:34; Cunningham, Bakersfield (holding), 8:48; Mele, Aces (elbowing), 11:38; Broda, Bakersfield (tripping), 18:21; Collins, Bakersfield (high-sticking), 18:26.

Third Period — 8, Bakersfield, Collins 4 (Broda, Burgdoerfer), 18:50 (en); 9, Aces, Elson 1 (Davies, Mele), 19:44 (ea). Penalties — Curry, Aces (slashing), 2:32; Burgdoerfer, Bakersfield (roughing), 8:03; Connolly, Aces (roughing), 8:03; Ramage, Aces (goaltender interference), 8:16; Marciano, Bakersfield (cross-checking), 14:09; Mazzolini, Aces (high-sticking), 14:17; Leach, Bakersfield (roughing), 20:00; Belzile, Bakersfield (roughing), 20:00; Mazzolini, Aces (misconduct), 20:00.

Shots on goal — Aces 9-11-12—32. Bakersfield 14-7-8—29.

Power-play Opportunities — Aces 0 of 5. Bakersfield 1 of 7.

Goalies — Aces, Roy, 5-1 (28 shots-24 saves). Bakersfield, Brossoit, 10-3 (32-28).

A — 6,411 (8,783). T — 2:33.

Referees — Ryan Murphy, Peter Tanaris. Linesmen — Steven Walsh, Tanner Nua.