Gathered in their Sullivan Arena dressing room Tuesday night for a quick team meeting minutes after they dispatched the Bakersfield Condors 4-1 and advanced to the ECHL’s Kelly Cup Finals for the fourth time in franchise history, the Alaska Aces did not cheer themselves.
They did not unleash whoops of jubilation, nor holler to the heavens.
They did not scream or crank up the volume on the stereo.
They clapped, politely, almost perfunctorily, for a few seconds.
“We see something bigger down the road,’’ said defenseman Corey Syvret.
That would be the coveted Kelly Cup, emblematic of supremacy on the circuit two notches below the NHL on the ladder of North American pro hockey.
The Aces have twice won the silver chalice, in 2011 and 2006, and Tuesday they used a sizzling start, 16 saves from veteran goaltender Gerald Coleman and pivotal contributions from many of the usual suspects to seize a berth in the Finals for the fourth time in the last nine season.
Alaska (12-3), which won the last three games of the best-of-7 Western Conference Finals to eliminate the Condors and win its fourth conference crown, opens the best-of-7 Finals with Game 1 Friday night against the visiting Cincinnati Cyclones in what looms as a clash of titans.
In a six-season span from 2006 to 2011, the Aces and Cyclones accounted for four championships — the Cyclones reigned in 2010 and 2008.
Game 2 is set for Saturday night at Sullivan and Game 3 Monday night at Sullivan. The series will be played in an unusual 3-3-1 format because of rink availabilty, which means Game 4 will be in Ohio, as will Games 5 and 6 if those are necessary. Game 7, if necessary, will be at Sullivan.
Alaska owns the home-ice advantage, as it has throughout the playoffs, by virtue of winning the Brabham Cup as regular-season champion. The Aces have won four straight Brabhams — no other franchise has ever won it in consecutive seasons — and the last three have come under the guidance of coach Rob Murray.
Cincinnati (12-6) advanced by virtue of more heroics from Jonathan Hazen. Hazen scored short-handed in overtime to deliver a 3-2 home-ice victory Tuesday that gave the Cyclones the Eastern Conference title in six games — that was merely Hazen’s second OT winner in the series and third in these playoffs.
Alaska has reached at least as deep as the conference finals — that’s the third round of four in the playoffs — in seven of its 11 ECHL seasons.
After rebounding from a
2-1 series deficit when the series was in California last week, the Aces rolled to a
4-1 win there in Game 4 and a 4-0 victory in Game 5. Alaska outscored Bakersfield 12-2 in the last three games of the series.
Still, Bakersfield (10-6) produced the best season in franchise history. The Condors under first-year bench boss Troy Mann reached the conference finals for the first time, which is especially notable because they did not even qualify for the playoffs in the previous two seasons.
Yet the only time the Condors seriously threatened Tuesday night came in the opening minute of the third period, when defenseman Erik Burgdoerfer’s power-play rebound trimmed the Aces’ lead to 3-1.
Less than four minutes later, though, Aces captain Nick Mazzolini answered emphatically, as he has done repeatedly in stamping himself as the league’s leading playoff scorer. Taking a pass from Zach McKelvie in the slot, Mazzolini teed up the puck and cranked a rocket over the glove of Condors rookie goalie Laurent Brossoit (28 saves) to restore the three-goal lead at 4-1.
“Their power play came out and did what it had to do, giving them a little bit of life and giving us the dreaded (two-goal) lead,’’ Mazzolini said. “To be able to score that fourth goal, I thought, was huge, and I was way pumped.’’
Combined with his two first-period assists, on a 5-on-3, power-play strike from rookie defenseman John Ramage and burgeoning rookie winger Turner Elson, Mazzolini delivered his third straight three-point performance.
“He’s done that all year, so it’s not like it was a surprise,’’ Syvret said of Mazzolini. “He gets the puck in the slot and I’m not thinking, 'Geez, hope he rises to the occasion.’
“It’s not like, 'I hope he scores.’ I think, 'This goalie’s in trouble.’ ”
The Aces, who have outshot their opponents in all 15 playoff games and outgunned the Condors 32-17 in the clincher, have surrendered just 26 goals in 15 games as Coleman and Olivier Roy have alternated starts. All six of the defenseman employed Tuesday — Syvret, Ramage, McKelvie,
Kane Lafranchise, Zach Davies and Sean Curry — own American Hockey League experience. They have not only herded opponents away from their net, they kick-started the attack with precise passes and used their collective strong skating to carry the puck out of their zone.
“It’s an American League 'D’ corps,’’ Coleman said with a grin.
That was the smile of a man who went through a second-period stretch of 10:17 without facing a shot.
While Bakersfield’s Brossoit held the Aces to four goals in the first two games of the series — a 2-1 Aces win in Game 1 and a 3-2 Condors overtime win in Game 2 — he was pierced for four goals in each of the last four games of the series. The All-Rookie selection, who began the season with the Aces before a trade of his NHL contract landed him in California, was particularly victimized by his team’s propensity for penalties in the last three games of the series.
Ramage blew a left-circle one-timer through his pads during a two-man advantage less than six minutes into the game for his fourth goal of the postseason. Elson followed from point-blank range just 94 seconds later, just five seconds after another Alaska power play expired, for a 2-0 Aces lead.
Center Jordan Morrison extended Alaska’s lead to 3-0 late in the second period, when he accepted Alex Belzile’s centering pass and blew a slapper over Brossoit’s glove.
When the final horn blew and the Aces locked their trip to the Finals, Mike Pearce, a league supervisor of officials, presented the Aces with the Bruce Taylor Trophy as Western Conference champions.
That’s the trophy that then-Aces captain Scott Burt, bowing to tradition and superstition, didn’t touch when it was presented to him in 2011 — “C’mon, you think this is my first rodeo?’’ Burt said afterward.
Mazzolini, 29 and a five-year pro, likewise refused to touch the trophy. He found it amusing that teammates felt it necessary to remind him before the presentation to keep his mitts off the hardware.
“I had, like, five guys come and tell me not to touch it,’’ Mazzolini said with a laugh.
“ 'OK, thanks, my first time at a hockey rink.’ ”
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Bakersfield 0 0 1 -- 1
Aces 2 1 1 -- 4
First Period -- 1, Aces, Ramage 4 (Mazzolini, Lafranchise), 5:35 (pp); 2, Aces, Elson 4 (Lafranchise, Mazzolini), 7:09. Penalties -- Carroll, Bakersfield (interference), 4:35; Broda, Bakersfield (delay of game-puck over glass), 5:04; Broda, Bakersfield (boarding), 8:51; Findlay, Aces (tripping), 12:40.
Second Period -- 3, Aces, Morrison 5 (Belzile, Findlay), 18:08. Penalties -- Belzile, Aces (high-sticking), 19:36.
Third Period -- 4, Bakersfield, Burgdoerfer 1 (Miller, Collins), :46 (pp); 5, Aces, Mazzolini 9 (McKelvie, Curry), 4:03. Penalties -- Burgdoerfer, Bakersfield (holding), 1:04; Knackstedt, Bakersfield (slashing), 18:26; Steffes, Bakersfield (slashing), 19:25.
Shots on goal -- Bakersfield 5-3-9--17. Aces 10-6-16--32.
Power-play Opportunities -- Bakersfield 1 of 2. Aces 1 of 6.
Goalies -- Bakersfield, Brossoit, 10-6 (32 shots-28 saves). Aces, Coleman, 6-2 (17-16).
A -- 4,289 (6,399). T -- 2:13.
Referees -- Nic Leduc, Frederic Leblanc. Linesmen -- Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.
By DOYLE WOODY