CINCINNATI -- In his two seasons as Tommy Mele's coach, Rob Murray has seen two sides to the third-year winger -- one side excellent, the other exasperating.
These last two games of the Kelly Cup Finals have brought out both sides.
Murray benched Mele for the last 15 minutes of a 2-0 victory in Game 3 last Monday after Mele took two penalties in the opening five minutes of the third period in what was, at that point, a scoreless tie.
In Alaska's 3-1 loss Friday in Game 5 here, though, Mele scored the team's only goal, received generous ice time and played a strong game.
Mele, 28, isn't especially big at 6-feet, 188 pounds, but he throws his body around with abandon, which is his role. He skates well enough and fast enough to push back defensemen on the rush or hound them on the fore-check, and he chips in scoring as a third-liner -- 22 goals in 100 regular-season games for the Aces the last two seasons.
Still, he skates a fine line. Mele's job is to irritate opponents, but he doesn't have the leeway to take too many questionable penalties -- Murray is more likely to be looser on the reins with a high-scoring player like first-line winger Brendan Connolly. In Game 3, Mele was penalized for goaltender interference in a situation Mele could have avoided, and then he took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, wiping out a pending Aces power play.
"I think his consistency has been lacking, for sure,'' Murray said. "When he's playing well, he's effective. He has to realize he can't stray from that.
"He's fast. He can get in on pucks, put opposing defensemen in distress most of the night, hit people. When he's got the puck, he's got decent enough hands.''
Mele, who considers consistency his biggest goal, said he had to learn from his Game 3 benching.
"It's a situation where I can't turn back time and fix it,'' he said. "I'm lucky enough Mur and (assistant coach Louis Mass) forgive and forget, and we got the (Game 3) win.
"Part of making a mistake is how you react. I told myself, 'It's playoffs, have a short memory.' ''
The goal was Mele's fourth in 15 playoff games -- he also has chipped in two assists -- and came as the result of the keep-it-simple type of play Murray wants from him. Mele drove to the net, along with Tyler Mosienko, and redirected Connolly's centering past behind Cyclones goaltender Rob Madore.
Mele as a rookie two seasons ago won a Central Hockey League championship with the Fort Wayne Komets, for whom he also served as a third-line winger. He believes the third line, generally designed as an "energy'' line employed to create chaos, can be a valuable asset because it gives a team a needed, physical component.
"We have depth and versatility, and that's what makes us special because you're not going to win with three first lines as this level,'' Mele said.
Shuffling the deck
Aces goaltender Gerald Coleman surrendered three goals on 16 shots Friday after stopping 64 of 66 shots (.970 save percentage) in the three previous games of the series.
Josh Shalla's first-period, power-play goal snapped Coleman's scoreless streak at 112 minutes, 14 seconds, nearly the equivalent of two full games.
Aces captain Nick Mazzolini, who leads the league in scoring with 10-18--28 totals, racked up those points in the club's first 16 playoff games. He's been held off the score sheet for three straight games now.
The Aces fell to 7-2 on the road in the playoffs. Their only previous loss came at Bakersfield in the Western Conference Finals.
Cincinnati coach Ben Simon was happy to get the victory that evened the best-of-7 series at 2-2, but he wasn't satisfied with his club's dearth of shots on goal.
"We were OK,'' he said. "But we've got to figure out how to get more shots --16 shots is not enough.''
Simon also would like to temper the pressure the Aces are putting on goaltender Rob Madore, who made 31 saves Friday. Madore "relishes the pressure, thrives on it,'' Simon said with a grin, "we have to find a way to reduce it just a little bit.''
Cincinnati's three top scorers in the playoffs are Byron Froese, who had an assist Friday; Shalla, who furnished a goal; and Jonathan Hazen, who also produced a goal.
"If you look at their top three scorers, if they score, they find a way to win,'' Coleman said.
Indeed, in Cincinnati's 2-1 victory in Game 2, Froese and Hazen scored the goals, and Shalla had an assist.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog and follow his live tweets from every Kelly Cup Finals game @sportsadn.
By DOYLE WOODY