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Aces beat Steelheads 5-2 on the road in Game 3

Doyle Woody
Darin Oswald

Playoff success in hockey, like the Alaska Aces 5-2 road win over the Idaho Steelheads on Monday night, is rarely dictated by shooters unleashing dazzling top-shelf goals or goaltenders flashing their glove for sensational saves.

More often, executing relatively mundane minutiae prompts postseason prosperity.

Think managing the puck: Getting it in deep in the offensive zone and getting it out of the defensive zone efficiently, and not turning it over and thus triggering a counter-attack. Think getting the puck to the net for a battle at the crease. Think blocking shots and making smart line changes.

For a goalie, think sound positioning, swallowing rebounds and freezing the puck to stem opposing momentum.

None of those are the sexiest things, but the Alaska Aces delivered them Monday night and earned an attractive result in Game 3: They gained a 2-1 series lead in the ECHL's Kelly Cup Western Conference semifinals and regained home-ice advantage in the best-of-7 showdown.

"In the playoffs, especially when you're on the road, you want to make sure the details of your game are on point,'' Aces winger Brendan Connolly said by cellphone from Boise.

Alaska received goals from five different players and 20 saves from Gerald Coleman, got a spark from the return of defenseman Kane Lafranchise and never trailed.

All that assured the Aces, at worst, that they will play again at Sullivan Arena, their home rink.

Game 4 is set for Wednesday back at CenturyLink Arena and Game 5 is there Thursday. Aces coach Rob Murray thought most of his team's performance Monday served as a template for success.

"Fundamentally sound,'' Murray said. "The details of our game were really strong.

"One of the things we did a really good job of was puck possession, making plays through the neutral zone, and even when we had to dump it in, a lot of times we recovered the puck with a strong fore-check.''

Nor did it hurt that the Aces solved Idaho goalie Josh Robinson (29 saves) early. Robinson, who a week ago made a league record-tying 83 saves when the Steelheads eliminated Colorado in the first round with a four-overtime win, in Game 1 at Sullivan on Thursday stifled 47 shots and backstopped a 1-0 overtime victory that seized home-ice advantage from the Aces.

Alaska rebounded with a 6-4 win in Game 2 at Sullivan. Still, that scoring explosion came against Pat Nagle, who furnished Robinson a night off.

Monday, Aces winger Tommy Mele pierced Robinson inside the opening two minutes, taking a 2-on-1 feed from Turner Elson and banging in his own rebound for a 1-0 Aces lead. Mele scored late in Game 2 to give the Aces their final two-goal cushion.

Although Idaho quickly forged a 1-1 tie Monday with Charlie Dodero's power-play rocket from the center point, the Aces regrouped with goals from defenseman Sean Curry and Connolly early in the second period.

With the teams skating 4 on 4, Curry scored on a left-circle wrister after taking a feed from defenseman Zach Davies. Connolly, who contributed six assists in the club's first six playoff games but did not score a goal and thus matched his longest drought of the regular season, broke through off a centering feed from captain Nick Mazzolini. Lafranchise, who spent most of the season with the Abbotsford Heat, Alaska's affiliate in the American Hockey League, also assisted.

Still, just as the Steelheads three times chipped away at two-goal leads by Alaska in Game 2, they generated push-back late in the second period. A goal from William Rapuzzi of Anchorage cut Alaska's lead to 3-2 and the Steelheads earned a power play late in the period when Alex Belzile took an unnecessary hooking penalty nearly a rink's length from his own net.

The Aces killed that Steelheads power play, which bridged the second and third periods. And Belzile made amends with his centering pass off the rush early in the third period, which set up Brett Findlay's goal from the slot for a 4-2 lead. Evan Trupp followed less than three minutes later with a slot one-timer off Mazzolini's feed during an Aces two-man advantage. The Aces received the 5-on-3 power play when Gaelan Patterson was serving time for holding Mele's stick and Mitch Wahl slashed Belzile on the initial power play.

Coleman's most timely work came midway through the second period when the Aces led 3-1. He stymied Rapuzzi at the left post and about 75 seconds after that got his skate against the right post as Justin Mercier and Brett Robinson jammed away at the puck. The Steelheads believed they had scored, but referee Pierre Lambert did not.

In Game 4, Murray would like to see a lot of what his team accomplished in Game 3.

"There isn't much not to like about it,'' he said. "There were a lot of good things.''

Shuffling the deck

With 2-12--14 totals in just seven games, Mazzolini leads all playoff scorers in assists and points.

Defenseman Drew MacKenzie's assist gives him 4-3--7 totals in seven games, which leads all blueliners in goals and points.

Coleman's 1.22 goals-against average in four games leads all playoff goalies. Bakersfield's Laurent Brossoit, the former Aces, sits second at 1.23 in seven games. He's also bagged five shutouts.

Connolly led the Aces with five shots on goal.

Curry's goal was the eighth by an Aces defenseman in seven games.

Alaska has outshot opponents 279-151 in the playoffs -- that's an average of 39.86 shots per game for the Aces and 21.57 per game for opponents. The Aces have outshot the Steelheads 126-71 in three games.

For what it's worth, Idaho also trailed 2-1 in the first round against Colorado, then promptly won the next three games to advance.

Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog

Aces 1 2 2 -- 5

Idaho 1 1 0 -- 2

First Period -- 1, Aces, Mele 2 (Elson), 1:55; 2, Idaho, Dodero 1 (Mercier, B. Robinson), 4:23 (pp). Penalties -- Belzile, Aces (hooking), 2:41; Cullity, Idaho (high-sticking), 9:51.

Second Period -- 3, Aces, Curry 1 (Davies, Syvret), 3:46; 4, Aces, Connolly 1 (Mazzolini, Lafranchise), 7:06; 5, Idaho, Rapuzzi 2 (Bast, Judson), 17:46. Penalties -- Cullity, Idaho (roughing), 2:59; Connolly, Aces (roughing), 2:59; Belzile, Aces (hooking), 19:42.

Third Period -- 6, Aces, Findlay 2 (Belzile), 3:35; 7, Aces, Trupp 3 (Mazzolini, MacKenzie), 6:09 (pp). Penalties -- Patterson, Idaho (holding the stick), 5:12; Wahl, Idaho (slashing), 5:56; Montgomery, Idaho (roughing), 15:54; Syvret, Aces, double-minor (roughing, unsportsmanlike conduct), 15:54; Connolly, Aces (tripping), 17:20; Nigro, Aces (slashing), 19:20.

Shots on goal -- Aces 11-11-12--34. Idaho 7-7-8--22.

Power-play Opportunities -- Aces 1 of 4. Idaho 1 of 5.

Goalies -- Aces, Coleman, 3-1 (22 shots-20 saves). Idaho, Robinson, 4-3 (34-29).

A -- 2,200 (5,006). T -- 2:30.

Referee -- Pierre Lambert. Linesmen -- Scott DeBaugh, Andrew Wetzel.


By DOYLE WOODY
dwoody@adn.comAssociated Press