With the score tied late in Game 2 of the ECHL's Western Conference semifinals Saturday night, Alaska Aces center Nick Mazzolini drove to the net to pounce on a rebound that ricocheted hard off the pads of Stockton Thunder goaltender Olivier Roy.
Between Mazzolini's rate of speed near the top of the crease and the velocity of the rebound, the puck was on Mazzolini, the hockey league's second-leading goal scorer in the regular season, so quickly he was unable to get good wood on his shot. He steered it just wide of the left post, where Roy got a pad on the puck and directed it to the corner.
About a minute later, Stockton's Matt Bergland scored the go-ahead goal at Sullivan Arena and the Thunder added an empty-net strike for a 5-3 win that tied the best-of-7 series at one game apiece.
Thus continued a tough start to the postseason for Mazzolini, the Aces' leading scorer and an All-ECHL second-team pick in the regular season.
"Right now, for one reason or another, the puck hasn't found him,'' said Aces coach Rob Murray, who alluded to Mazzolini's chance late in Game 2. "Those are the ones, usually, it's lights out. That's it.
"I hope he's not getting frustrated with it, can put it behind him and start fresh.''
Mazzolini, naturally, is hoping for better things too when the Aces play Game 3 Thursday night in California in the first of three games at Stockton Arena.
Through seven playoff games -- five against San Francisco in the first round and two against Stockton -- Mazzolini has scored just one goal and furnished three assists, and his four points tie him for fifth on the club. In 68 regular-season games, he bagged 36-35--71 totals.
Mazzolini, who has scored at least one point in just three of seven playoff games, is disappointed with his lack of production.
"Things aren't going my way,'' Mazzolini said. "I was (minus-3 Saturday). It's showing up on the score sheet and it's frustrating, and you've got to stay positive, which is hard.
"It's tough to hit the skids right now. After a career year, it's hard to feel powerless.''
Alaska's first line of Mazzolini and wingers Evan Trupp (1-3--4 totals) and Garry Nunn (2-5--7 totals), who also skated together on a power-play unit, has not yet in the playoffs been the consistent force it was in the regular season.
"The bounces aren't coming right now and the whole line's struggling,'' Mazzolini said. "You just have to play your way out of it.''
Second-line center Bobby Hughes, who leads the team in playoff scoring with 8-4--12 totals, and third-line center Zach Harrison, who checks in second among Aces with 5-4--9 postseason totals, have picked up the scoring slack.
Still, Mazzolini said he feels the responsibility to score, and it's going to take more than one goal to bring him out of his funk.
"Not a chance I smile the next time I score a goal -- I'll just head back to the dot for the next face-off,'' he said. "It's going to take more than that. It's going to take consistency.''
Murray said he believes in Mazzolini, and believes the center will rebound.
"It's only going to be a matter of time until he heats up,'' Murray said. "I'm not really concerned about it.''
Shuffling the deck
Murray said goaltender Mark Guggenberger will get the start in Game 3 after Gerald Coleman played the first two games of the series.
That follows the pattern Murray used in the first round, when Coleman started the first two games, Guggenberger started the following two and Coleman went back in for Game 5's elimination of San Francisco.
Murray said rookie winger Andy Taranto, who has missed the last five games with a lower-body injury, will be back in the lineup in Game 3. He said Taranto will begin the night as the 10th forward -- ECHL teams customarily dress 10 forwards and six defensemen -- and will also skate on a power-play unit with fellow forwards Hughes and Alexandre Imbeault.
Aces captain Steve Ward went through a full practice Wednesday in Stockton, Murray said, and "looked pretty good.'' Murray said the defenseman, who left Game 2 late with a lower-body injury, will make the decision Thursday whether he's healthy enough to play.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
ECHL Western Conference Semifinals
Series tied 1-1
Game 3, Alaska Aces at Stockton Thunder
Thursday, 6 p.m. ADT
Radio: Live, AM-750 and FM-103.7 KFQD
TV: Live, GCI Channel 1
By DOYLE WOODY