The ECHL-leading Alaska Aces still own the circuit's best winning percentage, but they have not played like its best hockey team the last six weeks, when they've been mediocre, at best.
And they've been weak in shootouts all season, as evidenced by Sunday's 4-3 shootout loss at Stockton, Calif., which marked the fourth straight time the Aces have fallen in the skills contest.
While the Aces (37-15-9, 83 points) own a four-point advantage on the Las Vegas Wranglers and a five-point cushion on the Ontario Reign in the race for the Brabham Cup as regular-season champions, they have gone just 8-10-4 in their last 22 games.
Granted, before that, their 29-5-5 record was a bit ridiculous, but they've come back to the rest of the league. Of the Aces' remaining 11 regular-season games -- two home games, nine road matches -- one is at Las Vegas, which like the Aces has played 61 games, and four are at Ontario, which has only played 58 games.
Shootouts have not been the Aces' forte all season. Their 3-7 mark in the skills contest ties Cincinnati for the worst shootout record in the league.
Aces shooters, who went 0 for 4 against Thomas Heemskerk on Sunday, have scored just 10 times on 47 shootout bids for a .213 shooting percentage that ranks 18th of 20 teams. Opposing shooters, meanwhile, have scored on 16 of 45 attempts for a .356 shooting percentage that leaves Alaska's goalies 15th in that category.
In any event, the Aces went 1-1-1 in the series at Stockton Arena, which featured three games in three nights. The third match in three-in-three scenarios has been one of Alaska's strengths this season. In the third game of three-in-threes, the Aces have gone 7-2-2 to earn 16 of a possible 22 points.
Sunday, with Shane Owen (21 saves) in net for his Aces debut after being acquired from Florida and flying cross-country Saturday, Alaska twice squandered leads and could not cash in on its 13-2 shot advantage in the scoreless third period.
Blair Yaworski's deflection of defenseman Steve Ward's shot seven minutes into the game furnished the Aces a 1-0 lead. But Mike Little and Jesse Fratkin (power-play goal) answered before Aces captain Brian Swanson scored with 69 seconds left in the first period for a 2-2 tie.
Nick Mazzolini's goal six minutes into the second period delivered a 3-2 Alaska lead, but Aces turnovers led to Max Campbell's game-tying goal late in the third period. The Aces could not crack Thomas Heemskerk (35 saves) in the third period and overtime, when Owen faced just three shots in 25 minutes.
Campbell and Jason Morgan scored for Stockton (29-24-5) in the shootout. Swanson, Wes Goldie, Yaworski and Mazzolini, who hit a post, came up empty in the shootout.
The Aces entertain the Colorado Eagles at Sullivan Arena on Friday and Saturday nights, then close with a nine-game road trip. That journey opens with three games in Colorado, which means the Aces' next five games are against the Eagles.
After that, it's playoff time. And for the defending Kelly Cup champion Aces, there's one particularly noteworthy difference in the postseason.
Shuffling the deck
Ward got "his bell rung'' in the second period, according to Aces coach Rob Murray in a postgame interview, and will be evaluated when the club returns home.
Mazzolini and Swanson each generated one goal and one assist.
The Aces went 0 for 4 on the power play Sunday and were just 1 for 13 in the series.
Winger Tyler Ruegsegger sat out his ninth straight game with an upper-body injury.
Owen became the fifth goalie the Aces have used this season, tying for the second-most goalies they have used in a season in their nine ECHL seasons. The 2008-09 team, which advanced the Game 7 of the Kelly Cup Finals, used six goalies.
Stockton coach Matt Thomas became the eighth coach in ECHL history to win 300 games in the league.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Stockton wins shootout 2-0
Aces 2 1 0 0 -- 3
Stockton 2 1 0 1 -- 4
First Period -- 1, Aces, Yaworski 8 (Ward, Kremyr), 6:52; 2, Stockton, Little 7 (Hunt, Morgan), 12:06; 3, Stockton, Fratkin 9 (Fulton, Lowery), 17:52 (pp); 4, Aces, Stockton, Swanson 7 (Mazzolini, Marsh), 18:51. Penalties -- Yaworski, Aces (high-sticking), 9:01; Hayes, Stockton (cross-checking), 13:12; Harrison, Aces (tripping), 15:54.
Second Period -- 5, Aces, Mazzolini 19 (Anderson, Swanson), 6:08; 6, Stockton, Campbell 7, 17:02; 7, Stockton, Campbell 7 (Levesque, Reber), 17:02. Penalties -- Fulton, Stockton, minor-major (roughing, fighting), 2:08; Marsh, Aces, major (fighting), 2:08; Foy, Stockton (roughing), 2:08; Cox, Aces (roughing), 2:08; Baker, Stockton (slashing), 11:45.
Third Period -- None. Penalties -- Levesque, Stockton (tripping), 10:10.
Overtime -- None. Penalties -- None.
Shootout -- Stockton 2 (Levesque NG, Baker NG, Campbell G, D'Alvise NG, Morgan G); Aces 0 (Swanson NG, Goldie NG, Yaworski NG, Mazzolini NG).
Shots on goal -- Aces 12-11-13-2--38. Stockton 9-12-2-1--24.
Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 0 of 4. Stockton 1 of 2.
Goalies -- Aces, Owen, 7-8-2 (24 shots-21 saves). Stockton, Heemskerk, 11-7-0 (38-35).
A -- 5,778 (9,737). T -- 2:24.
Referee -- Frederic Leblanc. Linesmen -- Steven Berry, Brett Martin.
By DOYLE WOODY
Anchorage Daily News