The Alaska Aces' playoff dream died at 9:37 p.m. Friday before a sold-out crowd of 6,251, killed by multiple causes – the Idaho Steelheads' suffocating team defense, the Aces' underwhelming power play and an offense gone barren.
Idaho's 1-0 victory at Sullivan Arena eliminated the Aces from contention for the last playoff berth in the ECHL's Mountain Division and furnished that coveted spot to the Utah Grizzlies.
And that means the Aces' season-finale Saturday night against the Steelheads will be the last game in franchise history – ownership in February announced it was curtains for the club because of deep financial losses.
"It's frustrating right now,'' said Aces goaltender Kevin Carr. "You look back at December, January, February – every month, like the Rapid City series (in March) – and we pissed away a point here, a point there.
"It's not good enough.''
Early in the first period, the Aces' playoff hopes remained real when the Missouri Mavericks posted a 3-2 win at Utah that kept the Aces in the hunt.
The Aces needed just one point to stay alive.
They could not muster one goal.
They were fed a shutout by the Steelheads for the second straight game, and their goal drought reached 126 minutes, 7 seconds.
"Guys were trying to do too much,'' said Aces center Stephen Perfetto. "But that's not how the game is played.''
Idaho goaltender Landon Bow stopped 27 shots, and his third shutout of the season came on the heels of teammate Branden Komm's 29 saves in Idaho's 2-0 win over the Aces on Wednesday. The playoff-bound Steelheads have generated three consecutive shutouts, the longest such streak in their 14 ECHL seasons that mirror the Aces' tenure on the circuit, and they have not surrendered a goal in 182:03.
Bow's teammates blocked shots – defenseman Charlie Dodero's block of Yan-Pavel Laplante's backhander from the low slot midway through the third period proved pivotal – and cleared what few tasty rebounds were available, and quickly kick-started the counter-attack.
Anthony Luciani delivered the only goal Bow required. His team-leading 30th strike came just 2:22 into the game. Luciani whistled a left-circle wrister off the rush past Carr's glove – Carr might hear about that in the offseason since Luciani is his summer-hockey buddy from back home in Ontario.
That the Aces trailed just 1-0 after 20 minutes put them in a decent spot considering they were shaky in the first period, when they committed a slew of turnovers and often mishandled the puck. The Steelheads in the first period enjoyed a breakaway, two 2-on-1s, a 3-on-2 and a partial breakaway, but Carr (19 saves) kept them at bay.
At times it was as if each Ace tried to do too much, and in the end that hastened hockey hell — no postseason for the third straight season after three Kelly Cups in the franchise's first 11 ECHL seasons.
"It just sucks,'' said Alaska center Tim Coffman. "We played hard, but we didn't execute. You can play hard, but you have to play smart.''
Coffman kicked himself for his missed opportunity in the second period, when he blew down the left wing, cut to the middle and seemed to have a great scoring chance from the hash-marks in the slot. Yet the puck skittered off his stick blade and, by the time he retrieved it in the right circle, the rush had fallen apart.
"I should have shot it,'' Coffman said. "I tried to make one extra move. I was trying too much, not playing smart.''
About a minute later, Perfetto raced down the left wing and flexed his stick to take a wrister from the circle, only to have his twig break and the puck bleed harmlessly away.
The Aces enjoyed five power plays, including two in the third period, but to no avail. They have failed to score a power-play goal in 17 chances in the last six games, and have converted just 2 of 40 chances in the last 12 games – they went 2-8-2 in those dozen games to surrender their playoff positioning.
A standing-room-only crowd will be on hand for Saturday's franchise-finale, which will be the long goodbye.
The Aces have nothing tangible for which to play. They'll play pride and professionalism, and for the packed house that bids them adieu.
"You're a pro, it's your job,'' Perfetto said. "If you're a 9-to-5er and you've used up all your sick days, and you're sick, guess what? You're going to work.
"I have too much respect for this game not to compete. Every guy on this team will work hard.''
Idaho 1 0 0 1
Aces 0 0 0 0
First Period – 1, Idaho, Luciani 30 (Lain, Faust), 2:22. Penalties – Van Brabant, Idaho (tripping), 13:28; Nugent, Idaho (holding), 15:40; Shattock, Aces (tripping), 15:49.
Second Period — None. Penalties – Anselmini, Idaho (slashing), 5:50.
Third Period — None. Penalties – Morrissette, Idaho (hooking), 3:48; Dahl, Idaho (hooking), 6:32.
Shots on goal – Idaho 10-4-6—20. Aces 7-11-9—27.
Power-play Opportunities – Idaho 0 of 1. Aces 0 of 5.
Goalies – Idaho, Bow, 19-6-2 (27 shots-27 saves). Aces, Carr, 18-23-5 (20-19).
A – 6,251 (6,399). T – 2:20.
Referee – Andrew Wilk. Linesmen – Scott Sivulich, Dom Eubank.