There was anxiety and tension and jubilation, and finally the home crowd could exhale. There were startling saves and eye-opening goals. There was a two-goal lead forged by the visitors' stout comeback, an emphatic, electric four-goal answer by the home team, and the usual hurt feelings that punctuate game's end when the puck ends up along the boards.
There was a visiting goaltender who came up large time and again, and the home team's starter who limped off the ice mid-game, replaced by a self-described "29-year-old with two bad hips'' who glided off the bench like a closer coming out of the bullpen.
The Alaska Aces' 5-3 victory over the Cincinnati Cyclones at Sullivan Arena in Friday night's delicious opener of the ECHL's best-of-7 Kelly Cup Finals did not lack for drama. It proved worthy of a battle for supremacy of the 21-team, minor-league hockey circuit.
Both the Aces and Cyclones have twice held the hardware aloft. The Aces ruled in 2011 and 2006, and the Cyclones reigned in 2010 and 2008, and now those franchises have clashed for the first time in this, the last of the league's four playoff rounds.
Game 2 is Saturday night at Sullivan Arena.
Because teams in the Western Conference like the Aces rarely play Eastern Conference teams like the Cyclones, the Kelly Cup Finals begin as a sort of mystery. Friday revealed two fast, deep teams -- and the pace of play seems likely to remain high-tempo.
Victory was not certain for the Aces until Turner Elson, rebuffed repeatedly by Cyclones goalie Rob Madore (37 saves), chased down Jordan Morrison's face-off win from his own zone and scored into an empty net with 18.1 seconds remaining.
Morrison, who along with winger Brett Findlay arrived from the defunct San Francisco Bulls in mid-season after that franchise folded, scored two goals, including the game-winning strike, and furnished an assist.Findlay delivered the game-tying goal in the final minute of second period to help wipe out Cincinnati's 3-1 lead and send the teams to the second intermission tied 3-3.
While the announced crowd of 4,859 was well short of the sellout the Aces have been accustomed to in previous Finals appearances -- this is their fourth in the last nine seasons -- it was by far the largest in eight postseason games this spring. For Findlay, who tucked his back-handed equalizer through Madore's pads, the noise in the building was a revelation.
"I'm very fortunate it went in,'' he said. "I was excited when it went in. The crowd erupted.''
And then he paused.
"What a feeling.''
After Aces captain Nick Mazzolini, the league's leading playoff scorer, gave the Aces a 1-0 lead off a feed from former Cyclone Evan Trupp just 74 seconds into the game, Cincinnati found its road legs in the second period.
Wade Megan tied the game on the power play, converting Jonathan Hazen's sly pass. Barry Almeida roared down the left wing, unloaded a heavy shot off the right shoulder of Aces starting goaltender Olivier Roy, picked up the rebound, skated around the net and put his club ahead. He scored on a high wraparound before Roy could regain his net, shooting over Elson, who was on his butt in the crease, trying to play goalie.
And then, about 30 seconds after Roy had clearly injured his left leg -- the goalie got up slowly and shook his leg as the Aces counter-attacked -- Logan Shaw scored on a wrap-around for a 3-1 Cyclones lead.
"The first period, we got that (sluggishness) out of our system,'' said Cincinnati coach Ben Simon. "And in the second period, I think we played like I wanted us to play.''
The Cyclones on Thursday traveled 13 hours and across four times zones to arrive in Alaska.
"It stinks, but that's the life,'' Simon said.
With the game tied 3-3, Roy was visited in his crease by trainer Tyson Salley and headed to the bench.
Enter Gerald Coleman, the aforementioned, surgically-repaired goaltender, who backed the Aces to the 2011 Cup.
Morrison and Findlay scored late in the period before Coleman even faced a shot -- the veteran went 9 minutes, 19 seconds before he was required to make a save. By the time Findlay made it 3-3, the Aces had outshot the Cyclones 9-0 since Coleman came into the game cold.
Morrison scored just less than nine minutes into the third period to restore the Aces' lead at 4-3. He wound up in the slot, as if to unleash a slap shot, hesitated momentarily as his stick swept toward the puck, and rifled a shot over Madore's glove, off the crossbar and in. Hockey players refer to that type of goal with a short-hand term: Bar down.
Less than a minute later, Coleman produced the save of the postseason for the Aces, who have played 16 games to this point. He moved across his crease right to left to stifle Hazen's redirection of Almeida's hard pass from low in the left circle.
"I came across and it hit my (left) pad, or the toe of my skate, or something,'' said Coleman, who stopped 13 shots. "(Almeida) was so deep (in the zone), I knew he wasn't going to shoot it, so I was already loading up to move across.''
The victory was Alaska's fourth straight, and Findlay said there was no hint of panic when his team fell behind by two goals.
"We stopped moving our feet in the second period,'' he said. "Finally, we took it upon ourselves and said, 'Enough is enough.' We've got a fast skating team and (coach Rob Murray) stresses to move our feet.''
Elson, a rookie winger, said the equilibrium Alaska's older players like Mazzolini, Coleman and others exhibit serves to calm the entire bench in tough times.
"It's all about character,'' he said. "We have more character on this team than I've ever seen. When things get rough, we pick each other up.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog and follow his live tweets throughout the Kelly Cup Finals @sportsadn.
Cincinnati0 3 0 -- 3
Aces1 2 2 -- 5
First Period -- 1, Aces, Mazzolini 10 (Trupp), 1:14. Penalties - Taranto, Aces (slashing), 7:59; Froese, Cincinnati (hooking), 11:52; Aces bench minor, served by Belzile (too many men), 13:04.
Second Period -- 2, Cincinnati, Megan 10 (Hazen Wysopal), 5:28 (pp); 3, Cincinnati, Almeida 2 (Froese, Aronson), 7:39; 4, Cincinnati, Shaw 4 (Almeida, Krogh), 11:31; 5, Aces, Morrison 6 (Findlay, Syvret), 16:36; 6, Aces, Findlay 3 (Belzile), 19:13. Penalties - Ramage, Aces (goaltender interference), 5:22; Mele, Aces (roughing), 19:37; Nugent, Cincinnati (roughing), 19:37; Ramage, Aces (roughing), 19:50; Krogh, Cincinnati (roughing), 19:50.
Third Period -- 7, Morrison 7 (Belzile, Davies), 8:45 (pp-en). Penalties - Megan, Cincinnati (high-sticking), 17:36; Froese, Cincinnati (tripping), 18:24; Nugent, Cincinnati (roughing), 19:14; Mazzolini, Aces (misconduct), 19:36; McKelvie, Aces (roughing), 20:00.
Shots on goal -- Cincinnati 9-7-12--28. Aces 10-13-19--42.
Power-play Opportunities -- Cincinnati 1 of 3. Aces 1 of 4.
Goalies -- Cincinnati, Madore, 12-7 (41 shots-37 saves). Aces, Roy (15-12); Coleman 7-2, enter 11:31 second period (13:13).
A -- 4,859 (6,399). T -- 2:33.
Referee--Pierre Lambert, J.M. McNulty. Linesmen -- Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.
By DOYLE WOODY