CINCINNATI -- From the first drop of the puck a week ago, these Kelly Cup Finals seemed destined to deliver six games or the maximum seven rather than the five-game jettison jobs that ECHL champions have furnished each of the last four seasons.
The players said so. The coaches said so. And so did the eyeball test, which showed two teams dripping with talent and depth, resiliency and resolve, and grand goaltending, that greatest of equalizers.
Friday night, the Cincinnati Cyclones made it so, using 31 saves from goaltender Rob Madore and two power-play strikes, including a late one that served as security, to beat the Alaska Aces 3-1 at U.S, Bank Arena and square the best-of-7 hockey series at two games apiece.
And now the quest to claim the coveted silver chalice is reduced to a best-of-3 equation, with Game 5 here Saturday night and Game 6 here Monday night. If necessary, Game 7 would be Wednesday night in Anchorage, after the teams make a journey Tuesday across four time zones.
Game 4's result maintained a pattern of alternating victories -- Aces win, Cyclones win, Aces win, Cyclones win.
"I think the whole series has been crazy with momentum,'' said Cyclones coach Ben Simon.
And each game is so pivotal that Aces bench boss Rob Murray did not hesitate to tinker with his lineup after just one period Friday.
He didn't like the look of his top line. All-ECHL right winger Peter Sivak, in his third game back after missing 11 with an upper-body injury, looked lethargic -- he was held without a shot on goal for just the second time in 75 regular-season and playoff games this season. Center and team captain Nick Mazzolini, the league's leading postseason points man, seemed to fight the puck -- he's usually a wizard with it -- and was held without a point for the third straight game. Mazzolini, Sivak and the third member of that line, Brendan Connolly, were clearly out of sync.
And so Murray juggled all three of his forward lines early in the second period, when the Aces trailed 1-0 after surrendering a tic-tac-toe, first-period power-play goal that Cincinnati's Josh Shalla finished for his playoffs-leading 11th goal.
"I got to a point where I didn't think that combination was working,'' Murray explained. "It's no time to wait.''
Murray elevated rookie Turner Elson to Mazzolini's right side. He dropped Sivak onto Jordan Morrison's line, and then onto Tyler Mosienko's line, all those moves designed to stimulate the offense, generate some rhythm and put Madore to the test.
"We were rushing things, trying to put a square peg in a round hole (in the first period),'' Murray said. "For most of the second period, and in the third period, we kept it simple and went north and south, and we were better for it.''
Even so, Cincinnati pushed its lead to 2-0 six minutes into the second period when Madore made another in his week-long series of startling saves and kick-started a counter-attack.
With Aces defenseman John Ramage shooting the puck from between the hash-marks in the slot -- that's prime scoring real estate -- Madore ranged at least five feet above the blue ice that marks his crease. He repelled Ramage's shot with his leg pads for a save that doubled as an assist. The puck rebounded hard to Jonathan Hazen, who bolted into the Aces' zone on left wing, cut to the middle and around defenseman Kane Lafranchise and slipped a shot through Gerald Coleman's pads from below the right circle.
"The way he pushed across, I just didn't have strength in my leg to push over with him,'' Lafranchise said. "I maybe got caught puck-staring.''
Coleman said that as he moved right to left, his quick read on Hazen indicated a high shot.
"You can tell what a guy wants to do by the angle of his stick, and he opened his blade to shoot high,'' Coleman said. "I lifted up and when I did, he saw me open up. He out-waited me. Good goal.''
Less than four minutes later, Aces winger Tommy Mele charged down the slot on his backhand and redirected Connolly's centering feed past Madore on the glove side to cut Cincinnati's lead to 2-1. That goal personified the north-south type of play Murray referenced.
"It was a perfect pass by Conns,'' Mele said. "At this time of the year, in my opinion, those type of goals are the difference -- the non-fancy stuff, the meat and potatoes stuff.''
Madore made big stops late in the second period on Mazzolini and Connolly and added a terrific blocker save on defenseman Zach McKelvie in the third period. That latter save was a case of Madore cleaning up his own mess -- he pushed a fat, juicy rebound of a point shot right to McKelvie.
Logan Shaw furnished the Cyclones with an insurance goal with less than four minutes to go, roofing a power-play wrister from the slot over Coleman's right shoulder for a 3-1 cushion.
Although the Aces outshot the Cyclones 32-16 -- they've outshot their opponent in all 19 playoff games -- they didn't believe they pressed Madore enough.
"There's a difference between putting pucks on net and (high-quality shots),'' Lafranchise said. "We didn't test him like we should have.
"But they're a good team. Give them credit.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog and follow his live tweets from every Kelly Cup Finals game @sportsadn.
Aces0 1 0 -- 1
Cincinnati111 -- 3
First Period -- 1, Cincinnati, Shalla 11 (Budish, Froese), 7:48 (pp). Penalties -- Ring-Jarvi, Aces (tripping), 7:32; Connolly, Aces (holding), 10:44; Lewis, Cincinnati (interference), 13:23; Krogh, Cincinnati (unsportsmanlike conduct), 17:46.
Second Period -- 2, Cincinnati, Hazen 8 (Madore), 6:35; 3, Aces, Mele 4 (Mosienko, Connolly), 10:02. Penalties -- None.
Third Period -- 4, Cincinnati, Shaw 5 (Wysopal, Alemeida), 16:44 (pp). Penalties -- Connolly, Aces (hooking), 15:16; Froese, Cincinnati (cross-checking), 15:57; Syvret, Aces (slashing), 15:57.
Shots on goal -- Aces 8-12-12--32. Cincinnati 3-8-5--16.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 0 of 2. Cincinnati 2 of 3.
Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 8-4 (16 shots-13 saves). Cincinnati, Madore, 14-8 (32-31).
A -- 4,501 (6,955). T -- 2:19.
Referees -- Ryan Murphy, Frederic Leblanc. Linesmen -- Steven Walsh, Ryan Daisy.
More coverage of the Kelly Cup Finals
By DOYLE WOODY