Preserving the lead proved as critical as producing it Tuesday night, when the Alaska Aces used a sizzling start as the springboard to eliminate the Bakersfield Condors and propel themselves into the franchise's fourth ECHL Kelly Cup Finals.
Thanks to a power-play strike from defenseman John Ramage and a goal from winger Turner Elson just after a power play expired, the Aces owned a 2-0 lead a mere seven minutes into their eventual 4-1 win in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals at Sullivan Arena.
That left the Condors with ample time to push their way back into the hockey game. But the Aces answered that push with a figurative shove in the remainder of the first period, and a number of Alaska players helped buck Bakersfield.
Defenseman Zach Davies blocked Jordan Knackstedt's 2-on-1 pass.
Winger Ross Ring-Jarvi delivered two strong hits in the offensive zone.
On a Condors power play, Ramage blocked a shot with his skate, defenseman Sean Curry went to the ice to block a centering pass into the low slot and center Jordan Morrison blocked a shot and cleared the puck to teammate Brett Findlay in neutral ice. Then captain Nick Mazzolini used his exceptionally long stick to defend a Condors rush and nudge the puck into neutral ice, just outside the Aces' blue line
Late in the period, at even strength, Mazzolini's hustle produced the kind of "back-side pressure'' coaches covet and cleanly broke up a 3 on 2.
In the final minute of the period, Aces veteran goaltender Gerald Coleman, who is 6-foot-5, twice shrugged his left shoulder to deny Knackstedt shots labeled for the top of his net.
That kind of team effort, Coleman said, is what coach Rob Murray preaches and demands.
"It's doing your part,'' Coleman said. "As Mur puts it, 'Everyone needs to do what they're good at.' ''
Now, the Aces (12-3), who won the Brabham Cup as the league's regular-season champion, face the Cincinnati Cyclones (12-6) in the last of the circuit's four playoff rounds.
Defenseman Corey Syvret said the Kelly Cup Finals been the goal the entire season, which explains why the team's "celebration,'' if you can call it that, was so subdued after beating resurgent Bakersfield in six games of a best-of-7 series.
"I think we realize what we can accomplish,'' Syvret said. "Looking at our team on paper, and on stats, we won the league and that says we're the best team.
"(But) there are no seeds in the playoffs. Now, we just have to prove it. We see something bigger down the road.''
By coincidence, Aces winger Evan Trupp of Anchorage just finished playing one team that traded him -- Bakersfield, which dealt him to the Aces late in the 2012-13 season -- and now gets to play the other team that traded him -- Cincinnati, to Bakersfield in the middle of his rookie campaign of 2011-12 season.
In the six games against Bakersfield, Trupp tied for second in point among Aces with 2-6--8 totals. Only the league's leading playoff scorer, Mazzolini, topped that, furnishing 5-6--11 totals.
Small world department
Cincinnati coach Ben Simon, like Murray a former NHL center, is yet another reminder that hockey sometimes seems like a tiny world in which a connection to Alaska or the Aces is commonplace.
Simon in his last season as a player was player/coach of the Sheffield Steelers in the Great Britain-based Elite Ice Hockey League and led them to a championship. He racked up 27-39--66 totals in 62 games.
The leading scorer on that Sheffield club was none other than former Ace and 2006 Kelly Cup champion Joe Talbot -- or Joey Talbot, as they called him across the pond. Talbot bagged 36-44--80 totals in 53 games.
The Aces didn't practice Wednesday -- they just met at Sullivan -- but assistant coach Louis Mass put winger Peter Sivak and defenseman Brad Richard, who are on the mend, through some brutal conditioning drills on the ice.
"I was having a bad day, until I got a little schadenfreude,'' Mass cracked as he exited the rink. "Now it's all good.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog
ECHL Kelly Cup Finals
Cincinnati Cyclones vs. Alaska Aces
Best of 7
All Times ADT
Game 1 - Friday, Sullivan Arena, 7:15 p.m.
Game 2 - Saturday, Sullivan Arena, 7:15 p.m.
Game 3 - Monday, Sullivan Arena, 7:15 p.m.
Game 4 - Friday, June 6, at Cincinnati, 3:35 p.m.
Game 5 - Saturday, June 7, at Cincinnati, 3:35 p.m.*
Game 6 - Monday, June 9, at Cincinnati, 3:35 p.m.*
Game 7 - Wednesday, June 11, Sullivan Arena, 7:15 p.m.*
* If necessary
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By DOYLE WOODY