|The Alaska Aces have won 14 of their last 16 games, are two points out of the lead in the West Divsion, and have already clinched a playoff spot.
We should have known better.
After battling through a stretch of call-ups and injuries -- a concussion forced captain Barrett Heisten to retire in January -- the Aces have won 14 of their last 16 games and have pulled within two points of the Victoria Salmon Kings and Idaho Steelheads in the West Division. Victoria and Idaho have 77 points apiece.
"On the 21st of December in Victoria, we dressed eight forwards and four defensemen," Aces coach Keith McCambridge told NHL.com. "Only three defensemen could play. One was playing when he shouldn't have been playing. Every team has to go through those kinds of hurdles, but when you overcome those hurdles, you learn a lot about yourself as a team. We've learned a lot about everyone in that dressing room."
A dressing room that now includes veteran defenseman Ed Hill. The 27-year-old, who also seen time with Florida, Peoria, Phoenix and Utah, has helped ease the blow of season-ending injuries suffered to defensemen Joey Hope and Bryan Miller.
While the Aces were never really in danger of missing the postseason, the fact they weren't even near the top of the West Division earlier in the season was a drastic change from years past. Alaska reached the National Conference Finals in 2005, won the Kelly Cup in 2006 and made the conference finals again last season.
"It was really frustrating," said McCambridge, who played for the Aces from 2003-06, of the early woes. "This organization hasn't had to face much adversity over the years. But every team goes through those injuries, and we really got bombarded with them at one time. It was a challenge. In my first year, to have to go through all those challenges and hurdles, those are situations that you can only learn from."
It certainly made it tough for someone like 35-year-old Kimbi Daniels to show up to the rink everyday. Daniels, who appeared in 25 games for the Philadelphia Flyers in 1991-92, has 59 points and 114 penalty minutes in 61 games this season, his eighth in Alaska.
"For guys that have been here for a while, it was definitely the longest stretch we've had where we've struggled," Daniels said. "It was just evident that we didn't have the bodies or the health to play at a high level every night. It was definitely a disappointment. We had open spaces that we needed to fill, and Keith did a good job of getting guys that are pretty good contributors at this level. It's been a big difference."
Indeed it has, evidenced by Alaska's climb in the standings. Daniels admitted he thought the division was all but lost as late a month ago.
"I didn't even know (we were in the race) until (last) weekend," Daniels said. "We were so far behind, it just didn't even seem plausible. I figured we would just finish strong and kind of peak going into the playoffs. We've actually managed to pull ourselves within striking distance. We just want to keep playing well and playing hard. To have to leapfrog two teams is a lot tougher than just doing one. We're just trying to finish strong and maybe get home-ice in the first round and just go from there."
Not so. With a 4-1 win at Fresno on Wednesday night, the Aces are a victory away from creating a logjam in the West Division. They visit the Bakersfield Condors this evening, while Victoria visits Phoenix. Idaho has a rare weekend off.
Alaska will also have an old friend back tonight against the Condors. Goaltender Chris Beckford-Tseu, who played for the St. Louis Blues earlier this season, was reassigned by Peoria to its ECHL affiliate on Thursday. He is 30-2-2 with a 1.81 GAA for the Aces over the last three seasons.
"There seems to be very little separation through the teams in this conference," Daniels said. "Usually in the past, there's been two, three or maybe even four teams you knew or pretty much expected you were going (to beat). This year, every game has been pretty close. Having played Victoria, Las Vegas and Idaho in the last month, they've been probably as high-tempo games as I've played at this level. I don't imagine it slowing down or getting any easier as the playoffs approach."
Once the Kelly Cup Playoffs begin next month, the Aces will be able to pocket the fact that they've won seven games during this recent surge by only one goal. McCambridge believes it's a testament to the mental strength of his club.
"When it's time to bear down and do all the little things that you need to do to get the win, guys are bearing down and doing them," McCambridge said. "When you get in the playoffs, there's not much margin for error and those one-goal games are important. To build off that right now and accomplish those wins when it is a tight game, you get that much more confidence."
Daniels agrees. In the long run, he knows the Aces will only benefit by winning so many tight contests.
"Earlier in the year, we were losing those games," Daniels said. "That was something that was different from previous years. It's nice to get back to protecting one-goal leads and being able to win those games. It gives us a lot of us confidence as a group. It's definitely been a nice turnaround."
Contact Brian Compton at: email@example.com.