CINCINNATI -- The glory of hoisting hockey hardware sits one tantalizing win away for the Alaska Aces, yet their collective demeanor after Saturday night's comeback victory here offered little hint history beckons.
After knocking off the Cincinnati Cyclones 4-2 to regain command of the ECHL's Kelly Cup Finals, the Aces milled in and out of the visiting dressing room at U.S. Bank Arena. The area was so quiet you could have heard a puck drop on the concrete floor.
Some players hopped on stationary bicycles to cool down after a chaotic game. Some showered quickly, some took their time. One by one, they walked down the hallway to a room where their post-game meals sat in Styrofoam containers. No loud noises came from the Aces. No one regaled with tales from the game. Players drifted outside to catch shuttles to the team hotel, gathering in small groups, their tone low.
Judging from the atmosphere, the Aces might as well have pocketed a regular-season win on a Thursday night, in February, in Utah, in Game No. 52, instead of Finals-pivoting victory in their 91st game this season.
"Business-like, as usual,'' goaltender Gerald Coleman said.
And yet, by capturing a 3-2 series lead in the best-of-7 showdown, the Aces put themselves in position to win the franchise's third Kelly Cup in its 11 seasons on the circuit when Game 6 drops here Monday night.
Alaska can become just the third franchise in the league's 26-season history to win three titles, joining the South Carolina Stingrays and Hampton Roads Admirals. The Aces, who won the 2011 Cup with Coleman and also won it in 2006, already are the first team in league history to make four Finals appearances.
At worst, the Aces have a fallback plan, not that they want it to come to that: If necessary, a decisive Game 7 would be Wednesday night in Anchorage.
"You win three of the four wins you need -- so?'' Coleman said. "You have to win that final one, and it's the hardest to win. (The Cyclones) don't want their season to end.''
The Aces are nothing if not ruthlessly, almost bloodlessly efficient. That trait trickles down from ownership, through coach Rob Murray and assistant coach Louis Mass, and down to veterans like 29-year-old Coleman, 32-year-old defenseman Sean Curry, 29-year-old captain Nick Mazzolini, 30-year-old center Tyler Mosienko, and 28-year-old forwards Brendan Connolly and Brendan Morrison.
And so it was on a night when they surrendered the game's first goal after just 13 seconds, never led until rookie defenseman Brad Richard's go-ahead strike with six minutes to go, and couldn't breathe easy until Turner Elson's electric insurance goal with two minutes to go. Persistence and perseverance were called for because the Aces also killed seven power plays, and the Cyclones' units with the man advantage are scary good.
"Stuff happens,'' Curry said with a shrug. "No one's panicking when we give up that first goal -- 'Keep calm.' That's what we've done all year.''
The only outward sign of excitement came from Elson, a 21-year-old. He smiled and confessed he was excited, but quickly turned stoic.
"You can have your emotion on the ice, and just after,'' he said. "But the next day, you go to work and put on your work boots.''
The Aces (15-5) responded rapidly to each goal from the Cyclones (14-9). After Josh Birkholz banged a rebound past Coleman on the opening shift, Morrison countered three minutes later, his backhander ticking off the stick of Cincinnati defenseman Josh McFadden, changing direction and sneaking just past the left skate of goaltender Rob Madore.
When Trevor Lewis restored Cincinnati's lead by backhanding home his own rebound about eight minutes into the second period, Curry answered 29 seconds later. The 6-foot-5, 227-pounder is best known for his rugged, physical play, not scoring goals. Yet he took a pass Elson threaded through a Cyclone's skates and roofed a wrister over Madore's glove, off the underside of the crossbar and in to forge a 2-2 tie.
"Without being too high-risk, I found a gap and jumped in,'' Curry said. "I kind of shocked myself, I guess.''
Morrison was easily the best skater on the ice. And he delivered the difference-making play, threading a cross-ice pass from the left boards to Richard streaking down the inside of the right circle. Richard whipped a shot behind Madore for the Aces' first lead, 3-2.
Minutes later, Elson blew around Brett Wysopal on right wing and cut to the net. Madore rebuffed Elson's first shot, but the rookie cranked in the rebound for a 4-2 cushion.
Throughout the night, as they have all series, Madore (37 saves) and Coleman (28 saves) traded exquisite work.
And, just as they have in all 20 playoff games this postseason, the Aces outshot their opponent -- 41-30 this time. They especially unlimbered their guns in the second period, out-firing the Cyclones 21-7.
Saturday's win improved the Aces record this spring in games following losses to 4-1.
"We're the kind of team, we've been resilient,'' Coleman said. "Everyone picks someone up. I give up a goal right away, and the guys get it back right away.''
And now the Aces have an off day Sunday before their chance Monday to capture the Cup.
"I want Monday to come sooner,'' Elson said. "You know you need the rest, but you want to play (Sunday).''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog and follow his live tweets from every Kelly Cup Finals game @sportsadn.
Aces 1 1 2 -- 4
Cincinnati 1 1 0 -- 2
First Period -- 1, Cincinnati, Birkholz 1 (Eves, Hazen), :13; 2, Aces, Morrison 9, 3:09. Penalties -- Mosienko, Aces (tripping), 4:11; Nugent, Cincinnati (roughing), 7:10; Mazzolini, Aces (slashing), 7:42; Curry, Aces (tripping), 11:20; McKelvie, Aces (slashing), 14:58.
Second Period -- 3, Cincinnati, Lewis 4 (Blazek, Megan), 7:40; 4, Aces, Curry 2 (Elson), 8:09. Penalties -- Reed, Cincinnati (hooking), 16:10; Belzile, Aces (interference), 17:13; Froese, Cincinnati (interference), 19:23.
Third Period -- 5, Aces, Richard 1 (Morrison, Syvret), 14:05; 6, Aces, Elson 6 (Connolly, Mazzolini), 17:50. Penalties -- Curry, Aces (hooking), 8:17.
Shots on goal -- Aces 11-21-9--41. Cincinnati 15-7-8--30.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 0 of 3. Cincinnati 0 of 7.
Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 9-4 (30 shots-20 saves). Cincinnati, Madore, 14-9 (41-37).
A -- 4,488 (6,955). T -- 2:24.
Referees -- Ryan Murphy, Nic Leduc. Linesmen -- Steven Walsh, Shaun Morgan.
By DOYLE WOODY