The best hockey playoff series pulse and sway and ride waves of emotion while momentum is alternately seized and surrendered, attacks are parried by counter-attacks and nearly every inch of the ice becomes hard, punishing territory on which to stake a claim.
Through two games of the ECHL’s best-of-7 Kelly Cup Finals, the Alaska Aces and Cincinnati Cyclones have offered each other rugged resistance, and they are essentially back where they began.
Cincinnati on Saturday night used 35 saves, including a penalty-shot denial, from battling goaltender Rob Madore to hold off Alaska, 2-1, and level the series at one game apiece in front of the postseason’s first sell-out crowd at Sullivan Arena.
The Cyclones’ comeback victory, delivered by Madore’s excellence and gorgeous quick-strike, first-period goals from Byron Froese and Jonathan Hazen in a span of 21 seconds, answered the Aces’ series-opening, come-from-behind 5-3 victory on Friday night.
Sunday, the teams get a needed breather before Monday night’s Game 3 at Sullivan, which Saturday featured a throaty, standing-room-only announced crowd of 6,438 fans.
On a night when the Aces welcomed the return of All-ECHL winger Peter Sivak after an 11-game absence caused by an upper-body injury and likewise greeted the return of scoring winger Brendan Connolly, who is part skill, part sandpaper, anything that separated the clubs was thinner than a skate blade.
The Aces (13-4), for instance, rang the iron at least twice — defenseman John Ramage hammered a second-period slapper off the right pipe and center Tyler Mosienko clapped the crossbar in the waning minutes.
“My best friend did me a favor,’’ Madore said of the iron that surrounds 24 square feet of net on three sides.
The Cyclones (13-7) thought they had earned the security of a two-goal cushion midway through the third period. But the two referees and two linesmen huddled and ruled Joe Basaraba had kicked in Froese’s centering pass with his right skate, so, no dice.
This has the makings of a long and worthy series like South Carolina’s seven-game triumph over the Aces in 2009, and that would furnish a nice change. The last four Kelly Cup Finals, including Alaska’s win over Kalamazoo in 2011 and Cincinnati’s win over Las Vegas in 2010, have been resolved in just five games.
“This is hockey,’’ said Sivak, the Slovakian sniper. “You need everything. You need luck, everything.
“But series is long. It will be a hard series, with a real champion.’’
That seems certain — fitting too, given the teams express nothing but admiration and respect for each other’s talent, depth and drive.
Cincinnati grabbed home-ice advantage from Alaska, which lost that edge in previous series against Bakersfield and Idaho, and then regained it on the road. The Cyclones arrived here knowing they needed, at minimum, one victory in the first three games. After Saturday’s game, music pulsed in the visiting dressing as Madore stood in the hallway, wearing the black hockey helmet awarded to the club’s player of the game.
“The atmosphere would be a lot different in the locker room with a loss,’’ he noted.
The Aces opened the scoring for the second straight night, this time when Tommy Mele took the puck hard to the net from behind the goal line on right wing and Ross Ring-Jarvi beat Madore with a quick, low shot from point-blank range.
That strike from the third-line winger came about 12 minutes into the game. Less than four minutes later, Froese and Hazen had answered emphatically, and spectacularly, to forge a 2-1 Cyclones lead.
Froese attacked on the left wing, cut to the middle and cranked a wrister back against the grain, past the right shoulder of Gerald Coleman (21 saves), off iron and in. Hazen followed in a hockey heartbeat, dangling the puck through the sweeping stick of defenseman Corey Syvret, who had dropped to the ice, and snapped a forehand low to Coleman’s glove side.
“I shot it right away,’’ said Hazen, who earned his fourth game-winning goal in a postseason in which he has produced three overtime winners. “At the end, it worked pretty well.’’
No argument from Coleman.
“Those are two great individual plays,’’ he said of the goals he surrendered.
All of that first-period scoring was prefaced by Connolly’s penalty shot, which he was awarded when he was hauled down on a short-handed breakaway.
Because Alaska plays in the Western Conference and Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference, it is not as if shooters and goaltenders from those distant precincts have knowledge of each other’s tendencies.
Connolly, who scored three regular-season shootout goals in four attempts, fired a forehand he intended to go high to Madore’s glove side. The shot, Madore said, struck the side of his mask. Connolly said it then glanced off the crossbar.
“You go to your go-to move, the go-to move all year,’’ Connolly said. “I just missed it too much to the inside.’’
Said Madore: “I was lucky enough to get my big head on it.’’
The Aces outshot the Cyclones, 36-23, just as they have outshot their opponent in all 17 playoff games, and they earned a power play with five minutes to go. Madore shouldered away a shot by Aces captain Nick Mazzolini, the circuit’s leading playoff scorer, and Sivak said he was slashed just as he moved the puck from his backhand to his forehand along the goal line to Madore’s left and sent a shot skittering behind the goalie and through the crease.
“I thought the Aces really pressed us,’’ Madore said. “They have a lot of skill, top to bottom, in the lineup. There were times we made mistakes, but I thought we took care of our end a lot better.’’
Now, the teams get a brief respite before Game 3, which beckons as a swing game in the series. The Aces have the chance to regain momentum before they hit the road. The Cyclones have the opportunity to put the Aces in a pinch.
“Monday,’’ Sivak said philosophically, “is a new game.’’
Find Doyle Woody’s blog at adn.com/hockeyblog.
Cincinnati 2 0 0 — 2
Aces 1 0 0 — 1
First Period — 1, Aces, Ring-Jarvi 1 (Mele, Mosienko), 12:17; 2, Cincinnati, Froese 8 (Shalla), 15:13; 3, Cincinnati, Hazen 7 (Reed, McFadden), 15:34. Penalties — Ramage, Aces (tripping), 9:16; Birkholz, Cincinnati (slashing), 19:45; Mazzolini, Aces (slashing), 19:49.
Second Period — None. Penalties — Trupp, Aces (tripping), 20:00.
Third Period — None. Penalties — Ramage, Aces (roughing), 6:22; Budish, Cyclones (roughing), 6:22; Shaw, Cincinnati (hooking), 14:59.
Shots on goal — Cincinnati 12-5-6—23. Aces 14-10-12—36.
Missed penalty shot — Connolly, Aces, 10:46 1st period.
Power-play Opportunities — Cincinnati 0 of 3. Aces 0 of 2.
Goalies — Cincinnati, Madore, 13-7 (36 shots-35 saves). Aces, Coleman, 7-3 (23-21).
A — 6,438 (6,399). T — 2:22.
Referee — Nic Leduc, Frederic Leblanc. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.
By DOYLE WOODY