Sports

Aces return home hoping for turnaround

Desperately in need of a new identity, the Alaska Aces are hoping Sullivan Arena will double as the phone booth that transforms the team from a mild-mannered hockey team into superhero skaters.

The struggling Aces return home for a nine-game homestand that begins Friday night against the Idaho Steelheads – a team that happens to sport the best record in the Pacific Division and second-best in the Western Conference.

"They're a very good team from their goaltending out," Aces coach Rob Murray said of the Steelheads.

The Steelheads are led by goalie Olivier Roy, who ranks fourth in the league with a 2.36 goals-against average. The former Alaska netminder continues to shine, one season after helping lead the Aces to their third Kelly Cup title in 2014. He's 20-7-0 this season and has turned back 91.4 percent of the shots he's faced.

Alaska is 3-5 against Idaho this season, having dropped four straight to the Steelheads. That includes a pair of setbacks earlier this month in Boise during the Aces' 1-4-1 road trip leading up to the break.

"We've had our pains and we've had our triumphs against them," Murray said.

Murray said the league-wide stoppage came at an opportune time.

"It was probably a good time of year to be off," he said.

The three-game series against Idaho – which includes games at 7:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 3 p.m. on Sunday – is being dubbed "Superhero Weekend," and will feature the team wearing special uniforms inspired by the look of Superman and other comic book superheroes.

The coach said he expects his team to play fast, up-tempo hockey coming out of the break.

"Our home ice always lends to having that ability to play fast, and if we can do that we'll be in good shape," he said.

Whether the Aces can live up to their new uniforms could well determine whether the team is able to pull itself up from the dregs of the division.

The team is currently stuck in 11th place in the 14-team Western Conference and sixth in the seven-team Pacific. They trail Utah by 10 points for the division's fourth and final playoff spot.

The team will have a new look in more ways than one. During the break, goalie Niklas Lundstrom was promoted to the AHL's Chicago Wolves, and the Aces signed Eric Levine of the Southern Professional Hockey League's Peoria Rivermen to take his spot. Levine posted a 4-3-1 record and 2.86 goals-against average in Peoria. He's expected to back up Aaron Crandall.

The Aces also picked up forward Curt Gogol, who was assigned to Anchorage from AHL Iowa. Gogol has a goal, two assists and 123 penalty minutes in 25 games this season.

"He plays a pretty spirited, physical game," Murray said.

Perhaps the biggest news, however, is the return of talented rookie winger Oliver Archambault. Archambault, 21, played two games for Iowa after getting promoted earlier this month. His return to the team will give the Aces a dynamic scorer who ranks second among ECHL rookies in goals (18) and is tied with teammate Greg Wolfe for third in rookie scoring with 33 points. The rookie's scoring touch continued in the ECHL All-Star game, as he furnished a pair of goals in the all-stars' 8-4 triumph over the Orlando Solar Bears.

"That helps our roster," Murray said. "As far as forwards, we're as full as we've had."

Things don't get much easier after the three games against Idaho. Colorado comes to town the following week, and the Eagles are just two points back of Idaho for first place in the division.

Murray said the upcoming games will give his team a good idea of where it stands relative to the best teams in the league.

"It's two of the elite teams we have to basically compare ourselves to," he said. "Are we closer to them or are we closer to the bottom?"

He said his team must approach its upcoming games with a sense of urgency and determination to turn things around.

"There's no excuses," he said. "We've got to play strong and come with a lot of energy."

Asked whether he thinks the homestand will be crucial to his team's success this season, Murray didn't hesitate.

"It has to be, there's no two ways about it," he said.

Idaho Steelheads

24-11-1, First place Pacific Division

at

Alaska Aces

15-17-2 (6th place Pacific)

Friday and Saturday, 7:15 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.

Sullivan Arena

Radio: AM 750, FM 103.7

Matt Tunseth

Matt Tunseth is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and former editor of the Alaska Star.

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