Nick Mazzolini was getting his face fixed in the dressing room and winger Zach McKelvie was back there getting his elbow examined, and that left Alaska Aces coach Rob Murray facing vexing problems for much of the second period Thursday night in a series-clinching 2-1 road victory over the Idaho Steelheads.
Murray was down to just eight forwards, so he had lost 20 percent of his manpower up front, no small shortcoming for a team playing its third hockey game in four nights.
Hockey is played in hard-skating shifts of perhaps 45 seconds or so, and players require recovery time between shifts. With just eight forwards, one shy of three complete lines, every forward shouldered more ice time, hence more fatigue.
Equally troublesome, Murray lacked Mazzolini, his captain and first-line center, who probably logs the most ice time among Aces forwards. Mazzolini had taken a puck to the face early in the period and was, as they say in hockey, back in the room for repairs.
While teams in the National Hockey League and American Hockey League are permitted to dress 18 skaters, usually divided into 12 forwards and six defensemen, ECHL teams like the Aces are allowed just 16 skaters. That reduction in personnel is for budgetary reasons and because the ECHL is a development league aimed at getting players ample playing time. The customary ECHL complement is 10 forwards and six defensemen.
Mazzolini's absence left Murray with just two centers -- Jordan Morrison and Tyler Mosienko. Centers are more critical than wingers because they take face-offs, cover more of the ice and have greater defensive responsibilities.
Murray made due by making several tactical decisions. He double-shifted Morrison and Mosienko, playing them with various combinations of wingers. Murray said winger Turner Elson at one point on the bench turned around and told him he had played some center in his career, so Murray used Elson in the pivot for some shifts.
And the coach leaned on first-line winger Brendan Connolly, who has often played center in his career. Connolly logged second-period shifts at both center and wing, and like the seven other forwards he appeared diligent about keeping his shifts short.
"I had to try to do my best to keep them as fresh as I could,'' Murray said of his line juggling. "We got through it.''
Impressively so, it turned out. The win vaulted the Aces into the Western Conference finals for the seventh time in 11 seasons. They'll enjoy home ice for the first two games, which are Friday and Saturday at Sullivan Arena.
Helping the Aces skirt debilitating exhaustion in the series-clincher against Idaho was the smarts of veteran goaltender Gerald Coleman. Coleman often smothered shots or simply covered a loose puck, which prompted a stop in play and allowed Murray to change lines.
Winger Alex Belzile scored midway through the period to forge a 1-1 tie. He received assists from Brett Findlay, his usual linemate on the other wing, and Connolly, who centered the line because Morrison, the usual center for Findlay and Belzile, was getting a short break after double-shifting.
Connolly late in the period drew a slashing penalty from Idaho defenseman Charlie Dodero, and the Aces' power play carried over to the opening minute of the third period. That Connolly proved disciplined enough to take Dodero's slash and eschew retaliation was noteworthy -- Connolly, no stranger to the penalty box, usually gives as good as he gets, and just as often.
With Mazzolini back on the ice for the power play in the opening minute of the third period, Connolly scored the go-ahead goal just after the man advantage expired, and Coleman and company made that 2-1 lead stand.
"It shows the perseverance we have as a team, how we can come together in a dire situation,'' Mazzolini said.
Agony for Idaho
Connolly's game-winning goal came on what appeared to be a pass intended for defenseman Drew MacKenzie.
Connolly, stationed below the goal line on right wing, passed the puck through the crease, trying to connect with MacKenzie on the back door. All four of MacKenzie's postseason goals, all on the power play, have come on variations of that play.
But as Idaho defenseman Russ Sinkewich, the former Ace, tried to break up the pass, the puck appeared to ricochet off him and past goaltender Josh Robinson as Sinkewich tried to bat the puck out of danger.
That marked the second straight season the Steelheads have been eliminated, 2-1, in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. A year ago against the Stockton Thunder, Robinson left his crease to play the puck late in the second period, only to have the puck jump the blade of his stick. Stockton's Andrew Clark raced in to gather the loose puck and fire it into an open net.
Shuffling the deck
The Aces are 8-1 in the playoffs, and their only loss came in Game 1 to Idaho, which won 1-0 in overtime.
Coleman is 4-1 in the postseason, with a 1.18 goals-against average -- he permitted just four goals in three games against Idaho -- and .947 save percentage. In his five playoff starts, only once has he given up as many as two goals.
Connolly owns 2-8--10 totals in nine games, placing him second behind Mazzolini (2-14--16) among Aces.
In nine games, the Aces have outshot their opponent in every game for a total advantage of 356-198. That's an average of 39.56 shots per game for the Aces and just 22.00 for opponents.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog
Aces history in ECHL conference finals
The Alaska Aces, fresh off beating the Idaho Steelheads in five games of an ECHL Western Conference semifinal series, have qualified for the conference finals for the seventh time in their 11 seasons in the hockey league. They await the Bakersfield Condors who eliminated the Stockton Thunder on Saturday night. The Aces have gone 3-3 in conference finals series.
2012Las Vegas WranglersLas Vegas won in 5 games
2011Victoria Salmon KingsAces won in 4 games
2009Las Vegas WranglersAces won in 4 games
2007Idaho SteelheadsIdaho win in 5 games
2006Fresno FalconsAces won in 7 games
2005Trenton TitansTrenton won in 7 games
A rink resume of excellence
The Alaska Aces’ seven appearances in conference finals since they joined the ECHL are the most by any franchise in the 11 seasons since the Aces joined the circuit. No other team owns more than four such appearances in the span, although the Cincinnati Cyclones are still playing in the Eastern Conference semis this spring and could make the conference finals for a fifth time in the last 11 seasons. Here are the leaders in conference finals appearances from 2004-14:
Alaska Aces 7
Cincinnati Cyclones 4
Idaho Steelheads 4
Florida Everblades 3
Reading Royals 3
Las Vegas Wranglers 3
By DOYLE WOODY