Fans hoping to watch the Alaska Aces kick off a nine-game homestand in super fashion got their money's worth Friday night but still left disappointed after the Idaho Steelheads posted a wild 8-5 ECHL hockey win at Sullivan Arena.
Idaho's Jason Bast had a hat trick and an assist and Wade MacLeod scored twice for the Steelheads, who extended the Aces' winless streak to six games and spoiled a spirited debut by the Aces' newest acquisition.
Many in attendance wore superhero costumes as part of the team's Superhero Weekend promotion, and the Aces came out sporting Superman-style jerseys. But the team's defensive effort was anything but heroic in allowing first-place Idaho to equal its season-best goal output.
"It's not just about playing defense, it's about winning battles, and we didn't do that," said Alaska coach Rob Murray.
The Aces entered the game on a five-game winless streak (0-4-1) but were hoping those woes could be cured by a generous helping of cowbell and corn fritters. They had reason for optimism, having gone undefeated in 11 straight games (9-0-2) at Sullivan leading up to Friday night's showdown.
Forward Curt Gogol had a Gordie Howe hat trick -- a goal, a fight and an assist -- for the Aces and racked up nine penalty minutes in his Alaska debut.
"He was excellent," Murray said of Gogol, who also provided the game's biggest hit with a teeth-rattling slam on Idaho's Eamonn McDermott.
But that wasn't enough to counter Bast's offensive onslaught. The rookie winger furnished four points to push his league-best rookie point total to 39.
The Aces (15-18-1) had even more reason for optimism when they saw who was opposing them in net. While Idaho's primary goalie this season has been former Alaska hero Olivier Roy, the Steelheads (25-11-1) instead elected to go with backup Henri Kiviaho, a rookie whose 2.78 goals-against average in nine games this season had to appear less imposing than Roy's sparkling 2.36 goals-against average and 20-7-0 record.
But Kiviaho proved up to the test, stealing a night of rest for Roy and picking up his fifth win of the season with a career best 36 saves.
Newly minted Aces starter Aaron Crandall, making his seventh appearance of the season, looked promising in the early going, turning back several quality Idaho chances in the first five minutes. Crandall's first significant challenge came during a virtual power play that resulted from Alaska's inability to touch the puck during a 45-second stretch during the delay between raised arm and whistle during which the Steelheads pulled Kiviaho and used the extra attacker to squeeze off a trio of dangerous shots. But Crandall's pads were faster than the Steelheads' speeding bullets and he dutifully defended his fortress of solitude with aplomb.
Crandall stopped the first 10 shots he faced, but kryptonite finally arrived with 6:50 left in the first period in the person of Jefferson Dahl, who found himself with enough alone time in front of Crandall to leisurely stroll from left to right, gather and fire from intimate distance past the helpless netminder.
"The best word is we were confused in the defensive end in the first period," Murray said.
Idaho continued its onslaught late in the period, breaking through Crandall for the second time with just over two minutes to go when Bast – the team's leading scorer as well as the league's top offensive rookie – fired a laser beam from the high slot that found the net for his 22nd strike of the season.
While Crandall faced 19 shots in the first period, Kiviaho had a relatively easy time at the opposite end, turning back 10 mostly benign shots to help Idaho to a 2-0 lead.
All hell broke loose in the second period, a frenetic frame that saw eight goals, a fight and an almost willful neglect of defensive hockey principles.
"That was just pure offense, back and forth," Gogol said.
Alaska defenseman Brad Cole gave the 4,493 fans their first glimmer of hope when he capped an extended Aces' foray into Idaho territory with a low shot from the top of the left wing circle that got between Kiviaho's skates and cut the lead to 2-1 three minutes into the period.
The buzz generated by Cole continued a minute later when Gogol – playing his first game after being assigned to Alaska from AHL Iowa – introduced himself to Anchorage fans and Idaho's McDermott with a devastating hit that separated the Steelheads forward from his helmet, stick and possibly senses.
The excitement proved short-lived, however. Bast quieted the cowbell crew just two minutes later with his 23rd goal of the season, a rebound tally that made it 3-1 with 14:24 left in the second.
Greg Wolfe re-energized the barn at 11:51 with a virtuoso effort, beating a defender before firing on Kiviaho, who made the initial save. Wolfe stuck with the play and scored on the rebound to make it 3-2.
Rookie sensation Oliver Archambault completed the Aces' comeback midway through the period with his 19th goal of the season, a wicked wrister that beat Kiviaho's glove from between the circles with the teams skating 4-on-4 following penalties on Gogol and Dahl.
Alaska wrestled the lead away less than two minutes later when Gogol further ingratiated himself to the home fans. After getting his clock cleaned along the boards, he immediately got to his feet and skated toward the Idaho net. His determination paid off when he banged in a rebound for his first goal as an Ace, drawing the largest ovation in a deafening second period.
The lead lasted a scant 38 seconds. Bast completed his hat trick by going five-hole on Crandall to make it 4-4 with the sixth goal in nine minutes of goaltending-optional hockey.
Murray said he needs better work out of Crandall, who won the starting job by default when Niklas Lundstrom was called up to AHL Chicago earlier this week.
"He needs to be better," Murray said.
At that point in the action everyone likely needed a break, and Gogol added to his bid to become a fan favorite by challenging the Steelheads' Mike Dalhuisen to a brouhaha that ended with both combatants claiming victory as they were escorted to more private accommodations.
"I just want to be a two-way player," said Gogol, who racked up 125 penalty minutes in 25 games this season with Chicago of the AHL. "I don't want to be an enforcer, but I will stick up for my teammates."
Bast was a pest all evening, and he got his fourth point of the night when his centering pass set up Belzile between the hash marks for a go-ahead slap shot.
Idaho ended the frame just like it started – with a two-goal lead – when an Aces turnover deep in their own end resulted in a 2-on-1 Steelheads advantage cashed in by Brett Robinson, whose high shot beat Crandall's glove side and put Idaho up 6-4 on the scorecard going into the final round.
Gogol helped amp up the drama midway through the third period when he assisted on a low-angle shot by Corbin Baldwin that got past Kiviaho to make it 6-5 heading into the home stretch.
MacLeod gave Idaho some breathing room when he put in his own rebound at the 5:38 mark. MacLeod provided the final margin three minutes later, scoring on a power play after yet another sloppy clearing attempt by the Aces' defensemen.
Crandall finished with 36 saves for Alaska, which was outshot 44-41.
Despite the ugly result, Murray said his team can take away one positive in the play of Gogol, who brought an exciting, pugnacious brand of hockey.
"That's what this team has been lacking," Murray said.
Murray said he thinks the team's new fireplug will continue earning applause.
"That's the way he plays," he said. "You can expect more of that from him."
The teams face off again Saturday night at 7:15 p.m. for the second game of the three-game series.
Contact reporter Matt Tunseth at 257-4335 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Idaho 8, Alaska 5
Idaho 2 4 2 - 8
Alaska 0 4 1 - 5
1st Period-1, Idaho, Dahl 3 (Robinson, MacLeod), 13:10. 2, Idaho, Bast 22 (Case, Belzile), 17:54. Penalties-Sproule Ak (holding the stick), 7:45; MacLeod Idh (high-sticking), 8:38.
2nd Period-3, Alaska, Cole 5 (Bussieres, Francis), 2:41. 4, Idaho, Bast 23 (Baker), 5:36. 5, Alaska, Wolfe 14 8:09 (SH). 6, Alaska, Archambault 19 (Baldwin), 9:49. 7, Alaska, Gogol 1 (Cole, Gorham), 11:30. 8, Idaho, Bast 24 (Belzile), 12:08. 9, Idaho, Belzile 18 (Bast), 17:33 (PP). 10, Idaho, Robinson 10 (MacLeod, Dahl), 18:41. Penalties-Harrington Ak (hooking), 6:34; Gogol Ak (roughing), 8:56; Dahl Idh (slashing ), 9:18; Dalhuisen Idh (removing the helmet, fighting - major), 14:17; Gogol Ak (removing the helmet, fighting - major), 14:17; Cole Ak (roughing), 16:31; MacLeod Idh (slashing ), 18:48.
3rd Period-11, Alaska, Baldwin 2 (Connolly, Gogol), 8:24. 12, Idaho, MacLeod 14 (Beck, Bast), 14:22. 13, Idaho, MacLeod 15 17:15 (PP). Penalties-MacLeod Idh (tripping), 12:00; Cameron Ak (slashing ), 15:24.
Shots on Goal-Idaho 19-14-11-44. Alaska 10-20-11-41.
Power Play Opportunities-Idaho 2 / 5; Alaska 0 / 4.
Goalies-Idaho, Kiviaho 5-4-1-0 (41 shots-36 saves). Alaska, Crandall 1-3-1-0 (44 shots-36 saves).
Referees-Peter MacDougall (26).
Linesmen-Travis Jackson (65), Steve Glines (44).
Alaska Dispatch Publishing