The fine line Brendan Connolly hovers near each hockey game, that blurry boundary between behavior that is permitted or penalized, is ever-moving and subjective.
The nightly location of the line is defined, or altered, by the referee's discretion and tolerance -- does he call a tight game or allow boys to be boys? There is also the tone of the game to measure -- is this a body-bag game in which nastiness and scrums abound after the whistle, or a relatively gentle encounter where the odd cross-check will stand out? Consider the score too -- players are generally given more leeway in a close game than in a runaway.
For Connolly, the Alaska Aces winger who earns both points and penalty minutes at a prodigious pace and believes he plays best when he's surly and engaged, the quintessential equation is this: To perform at the very top of his game, he can't be too over the top.
"Sometimes, you have to cross that line to know where it is,'' Connolly said. "That's not necessarily my intention, to cross it. I just go out there and work hard and let (opponents) know: This is going to be 60 minutes and you're going to compete.''
Next up for Connolly and the Aces are the Bakersfield Condors. The teams open the Western Conference finals Friday night at Sullivan Arena.
Through nine ECHL Kelly Cup playoff games this spring, Connolly's 2-8--10 scoring totals rank him second on the club in assists and points, and his 18 penalty minutes are the most on the team.
Connolly's five-year pro career has testified to both his skill -- four consecutive seasons of 22 goals or more -- and his abrasiveness -- an average of 1.89 penalty minutes per game.
Connolly in 51 regular-season games furnished the Aces 22-27--49 totals and 109 penalty minutes, the latter second on the team behind defenseman Dustin Molle's 116 penalty minutes. Connolly was just one of three ECHL players to score 20 or more goals while accumulating more than 100 penalty minutes.
As a young player, Connolly said, the knock on him was his size -- he's just 5-foot-9 -- so he determined he needed an element of sandpaper in his game to flourish. That's why you often see Connolly, an alternate captain, battling at the edge of the crease and combative in the corners.
Aces coach Rob Murray understands. He used to be that guy.
Murray played 1,306 regular-season and playoff games as a pro -- that includes 116 NHL games -- and racked up 3,470 penalty minutes for an average of 2.66 penalty minutes per game. He was also a team captain in a majority of his 16 pro seasons and learned how to negotiate the fine line.
"You have to have an ability to know how far to take it,'' Murray said. "Sometimes, you cross that line, and it's too late. But you want to walk that line without tempering your game, because you have to play like that.''
Murray said Connolly's package of skill and grit -- Connolly is the most physical player on Alaska's first line with center and captain Nick Mazzolini, and winger Evan Trupp -- is his identity.
"A guy like him thinks, 'This is how I've got to play to be effective and if I get away from that, my game's going to suffer,' '' Murray said.
When the Aces acquired Connolly in a trade late last offseason, Connolly said Murray and assistant coach Louis Mass told him the club needed in infusion of antagonism.
"Lou and Mur stressed they needed a skill guy who has some grit to him,'' Connolly said.
Connolly has taken at least a couple of unnecessary penalties in these playoffs. One was a cross-checking penalty at the Las Vegas net - penalties in the offensive zone are rarely good ones.
But in the series-clinching win at Idaho last week, Connolly absorbed a slash from Steelheads defenseman Charlie Dodero late in the second period, with the score tied 1-1, and did not retaliate. Connolly's goal early in the third period, just as Alaska's power play expired, stood up as the game winner.
With the Kelly Cup playoffs down to the final four teams -- the Greenville Road Warriors, Connolly's old club, and the Cincinnati Cyclones will meet in the Eastern Conference finals -- Connolly knows he needs to accurately determine the location of the fine line.
"Guys work too hard this time of year to have your penalty affect a playoff series,'' Connolly said.
And in the conference finals, he'll have one more factor to consider: Another set of eyes. While the ECHL employs a one-referee system in the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs, it begins using a two-referee system in the conference finals.
That means infractions behind the play can be more easily spotted, and penalized.
And, of course, it means one more thing to measure while trying to figure out the location of the fine line.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog
ECHL Kelly Cup Playoffs
Western Conference Finals
Bakersfield Condors vs. Alaska Aces
Best of 7
Game 1, Friday, Sullivan Arena, 7:15 p.m.
By DOYLE WOODY