In the Alaska Aces’ series-leveling 4-1 victory Saturday night at Bakersfield, Nick Mazzolini again showed why he wears the 'C’ on his sweater — two tasty goals and a delicious assist from the captain in the opening 4 minutes, 6 seconds staked his club to a three-goal lead.
Evan Trupp continued his wickedly hot run — 12 points in the last eight games — with two more assists.
The defensive pairing of Kane Lafranchise (one goal, one assist) and John Ramage (two helpers) proved first rate again on both sides of the puck — each bagged a plus-3 rating.
Turner Elson delivered his second goal in two nights, this one an insurance marker that was, as the players say, just filthy.
And news flash: The Aces scored on the power play, which normally would not merit a bulletin, but was worthy of one in light of 16 consecutive fruitless power plays in the previous five hockey games.
But not to be lost in the victory that evened the ECHL’s best-of-7 Western Conference finals at 2-2, regained home-ice advantage for the Aces and guaranteed the series will return to Anchorage was the work of good ol’ reliable Gerald Coleman.
The veteran goaltender, who backstopped the Aces to the 2011 Kelly Cup, this postseason is splitting duties with Olivier Roy, so he is not the particular center of attention he was three years ago. Saturday, though, with the Aces coming off a 5-4 road loss in Game 3 Friday, when they surrendered three-first period goals and twice trailed by three, Coleman racked up 24 saves and never permitted Bakersfield to channel its comeback billing as the Cardiac Condors.
He also handed the Condors their first home-ice loss at Rabobank Arena in seven games there this postseason, which continues with Sunday’s Game 5 at Rabobank. Alaska, meanwhile, improved to 6-1 on the road.
Coleman’s numbers continue to be digits to savor. His 1.40 goals-against average leads all masked men in the playoffs, his .938 save percentage that ranks first among goalies still playing and the only blemishes on his 5-2 record are both overtime losses.
When Bakersfield generated its inevitable push-back, both in second half of the first period and during a stretch midway through the game, Coleman was steadfast.
“He eliminated any second chances,’’ Aces coach Rob Murray said by cellphone. “He smothered pucks. He put pucks into (the protective) netting to get face-offs. He did a lot of things that calmed down the game.’’
After nine seasons of pro hockey, the last four with the Aces, the 29-year-old former ECHL Goaltender of the Year has developed both a feel for the rhythm of a game and an understanding of what his teammates need at a given moment. That’s why he so frequently freezes the puck or deflects it out of play, tactics that not only stems an opponent’s momentum, but allows the Aces to regroup or Murray to change lines.
“When your team gets scrambling,’’ Coleman said, “you just try to get a whistle if you can or steer the puck out of danger zones. After nine years, you just kind of get used to it.’’
The only goal Coleman permitted Saturday was Joel Broda’s power-play dart midway through the second period to slice Alaska’s lead to 3-1.
But Elson, elevated from the third line to the second with Brett Findlay a scratch, answered less than five minutes later with a dazzling goal.
Rushing into Bakersfield’s zone on right wing, he cut to the high slot, where he was ronted by Bakersfield defenseman Erik Burgdoerfer, with two back-checkers in pursuit, Elson whistled a wrister through Burgdoerfer’s legs and over the glove of Laurent Brossoit (29 saves), popping Brossoit’s water bottle off the top of the net and restoring a three-goal cushion at 4-1.
Bakersfield’s victory in Game 3 marked not only the first time they Aces have surrendered consecutive games this postseason — the Condors won Game 2 in Anchorage, 3-2 in overtime — but the first time they have trailed in any of their three playoff series.
Lafranchise said the team still felt the sting of that loss at its morning skate, and some players carried that burden in their demeanor. He and Mazzolini both said assistant coach Louis Mass noticed as much and addressed the team in the dressing room prior to the short skate.
“He said, basically, anything worth having is rough,’’ Mazzolini recounted. “We’d never been behind before, and he helped put it in perspective, and it’s what we needed to hear.’’
Mazzolini, who learned his girlfriend’s grandfather died Friday, generated a first-period performance reminiscent of two others in road games these playoffs. In a 4-2 victory at Idaho that gave Alaska a 3-1 lead in its eventual five-game series win, Mazzolini scored two goals in a four-goal first period. In a 5-1 win in Game 3 of an opening-round sweep of Las Vegas, he set up one goal and scored one inside the opening seven minutes.
Saturday, he topped those efforts. Mazzolini took a stretch pass from Ramage and just 13 seconds into the game rifled a shot over Brossoit’s blocker. That marked the first time in the series the Aces scored first.
Less than three minutes later, Mazzolini steered Lafranchise’s centering pass inside the left post. And just 75 seconds later, his centering pass from below the goal line on right wing found Lafranchise sneaking in the back door for a power-play goal and a 3-0 lead.
“We were hungry,’’ Lafranchise said.
That was the fastest the Aces have raced to a 3-0 lead in a combined 84 regular-season and playoff games this season. The previous standard was the 3-0 hammer they struck Utah with in the opening 6:07 of a 5-1 home win on Dec. 20.
“Obviously, starting the way we did didn’t hurt,’’ Murray said. “After (Friday), and after two straight losses, it’s only natural to start doubting. So, to get those goals re-established our confidence.’’
Shuffling the deck
Mazzolini in 13 playoff games has generated seven multiple-point games, and his three-point first period marked his fifth multiple-point period in the playoffs.
He leads the Aces in goals, assists and points with 7-14—21 totals after going 6-7—13 in 22 previous playoff games in three seasons.
In the eight games since Trupp snapped his five-game point drought to open the playoffs, he has furnished 6-6—12 totals.
Mazzolini and linemate Brendan Connolly (one assist) are in a four-way tie for the top plus-minus in the league at plus-11. Bakersfield defenseman Joey Leach is also plus-11.
Findlay was a scratch for the first time in the playoffs and rookie winger Andy Taranto took his place in the lineup to mark Taranto’s return after being a healthy scratch 10 straight games.
The Aces outshot the Condors 33-25 and have outshot their opponent in all 13 playoff games.
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Aces3 1 0 — 4
Bakersfield0 1 0 — 1
First Period — 1, Aces, Mazzolini 6 (Ramage, Connolly), :13; 2, Aces, Mazzolini 7 (Lafranchise, Trupp), 2:51; 3, Aces, Lafranchise 1 (Mazzolini, Trupp), 4:06 (pp). Penalties — Leach, Bakersfield (roughing), 3:56; Burgdoerfer, Bakersfield (roughing), 4:46; Lafranchise, Aces (roughing), 4;46; Bowman, Bakersfield (interference), 5:58; Martin, Aces (charging), 9:30; Mazzolini, Aces (slashing), 14:07.
Second Period — 4, Bakersfield, Broda 8 (Knackstedt, Thurber), 10:12 (pp); 5, Aces, Elson 2 (Ramage), 15:30. Penalties — Burgdoerfer, Bakersfield (tripping), :38; Mazzolini, Aces (tripping), 9:20; Steffes, Bakersfield (roughing), 11:31; Connolly, Aces (roughing), 11:31; Bowman, Bakersfield (tripping), 19:00; Connolly, Aces (unsportsmanlike conduct-diving), 19:00.
Third Period — None. Penalties — Bowman, Bakersfield (tripping), 5:45; Ramage, Aces (delay of game-puck over glass), 11:24; Bowman, Bakersfield (holding), 16:41.
Shots on goal — Aces 14-11-8—33. Bakersfield 10-7-8—25.
Power-play Opportunities — Aces 1 of 5. Bakersfield 1 of 4.
Goalies — Aces, Coleman, 5-2 (25 shots-24 saves). Bakersfield, Brossoit, 10-4 (33-29).
A – 5,661 (8,782). T – 2:26.
Referee – Pierre Lambert, Peter Tarnaris. Linesmen – Steven Walsh, Tanner
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog
By DOYLE WOODY