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Aces high after opening-round sweep

by Brian Compton

The Alaska Aces took it to the defending ECHL Champions, the Idaho Steelheads, by sweeping them out of this year's playoffs in four straight.
While some teams are still competing in the opening round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs, it has already been determined that a new champion will be crowned in 2008.

Certainly, it wasn't a shocker that the Alaska Aces were able to defeat the Idaho Steelheads in their best-of-seven series. But it certainly was a surprise that the Aces swept the defending champions in four straight games.

Alaska set the tone early in the series with timely goals and sensational goaltending from Marek Schwarz, who made 47 saves in Game 1. The Aces won the opening game of the series, 4-1.

"The first game, I felt it took us probably the first seven minutes of the game to kind of start playing the way we're capable of," Alaska coach Keith McCambridge said. "It was almost like we were a little bit in awe of sitting back and watching them play. We finally clicked in and started playing the way we're capable of. Everything fit into place from there."

Schwarz, who was selected 17th overall by the St. Louis Blues in 2004, was the wild card for Alaska heading into the series. The 22-year-old appeared in just six games for the Aces during the regular season, as he spent the majority of the campaign with the club's American Hockey League affiliate in Peoria. He also played in two games this season for the St. Louis Blues.

"He was definitely a major factor in the series, that's for sure," McCambridge said of Schwarz. "He made those big saves that you always talk about. You need your goaltenders to make the saves at crucial parts of the game, and he did that for us. The reason our penalty kill is where it's at right now is because of the goaltending."

Goaltending was arguably the biggest reason why one could have made a strong case for an Idaho repeat. The club received Steve Silverthorn, the 2007 MVP of the Kelly Cup Finals, just prior to the start of the postseason, which was supposed to give the club a huge lift. But Silverthorn posted a 3.79 GAA and a .857 save percentage in three appearances.

Nonetheless, the Aces weren't intimidated by the defending champions. They received goals from six players in a 6-4 victory at Idaho in Game 2, before Derick Martin sparked the club to a dramatic win in Game 3, when he scored 2:34 into double overtime at Sullivan Arena. Matt Shasby scored the game-winning goal in a 2-1 win in Game 4.

"We definitely knew that we were playing a team that is very dangerous at any time during a game," McCambridge said. "I felt we prepared very well to meet the challenge against the defending Kelly Cup champions."

The challenge was met with vigor. The Aces were not about to be intimidated by a team that was in the midst of wild celebration only 10 months earlier.

"I wouldn't say nervous; I'd say excited," McCambridge said of playing the Steelheads in the opening round. "As a group, we kind of went with the game plan of we were excited to get Idaho in the first round when we're fresh and not banged up. It's obviously the best first-round matchup in the ECHL, and we were excited to play in it. We came down the stretch with a lot of success and made that push for the division title."

And what a push it was. Numerous injuries and call-ups to the AHL had McCambridge's club just fighting for a playoff spot only a few months ago. Some of his defensemen were playing in excess of 30 minutes each night. The Aces fought through the adversity tremendously and nearly won the West Division title. Instead of feeling dejected about coming up short in that race, they swept the Kelly Cup champs right out of the playoffs.

Goaltender Marek Schwarz appeared in just six games for the Aces during the season.
"We always had the personnel," McCambridge said. "We had the core group from our Kelly Cup year, and then we made acquisitions during the year through trades and acquisitions from Europe. They surrounded that core group of guys with the talent that we needed. It gave us almost a breath of fresh air to see some new faces in the room. When we were depleted and some rough spells -- which every team goes through -- I really felt we were just a matter of one or two pieces away from getting back to where we needed to be."

The Aces still need to find out where they need to be for the second round of the playoffs. Alaska is awaiting the winner of the series between the top-seeded Las Vegas Wranglers and the Stockton Thunder. Those teams meet tonight in Game 4, with Las Vegas leading 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.

So how does Alaska keep its focus with such a long layoff? Should the Wranglers and Thunder go the distance, Game 7 wouldn't be played until April 23. The Aces eliminated Idaho on April 13.

 "It's potentially 12 days off," McCambridge said. "You don't want to lose that game intensity that we just came out playing such a terrific series. The other side is that you have a chance for guys to rest and heal up and get back to 100 percent. It's a little of both worlds. It's not the ideal situation in the playoffs, but it is what it is."

Around the ECHL – In the American Conference, the Elmira Jackals evened their best-of-seven series with the Reading Royals at two games apiece with a 5-2 win Thursday night. Game 5 is slated for tomorrow night in Elmira. The winner will move on to play the Cincinnati Cyclones, who swept the Johnstown Chiefs in four straight. … After dropping the first two games of a best-of-five series, the South Carolina Stingrays won three straight to eliminate the Augusta Lynx. Jared Bedar's club begins the second round Friday night on home ice against the Gwinnett Gladiators in Game 1 of a best-of-five series. Gwinnett took its opening-round series with the Charlotte Checkers in three straight. … The Columbia Inferno pulled off a major upset by sweeping the Florida Everblades in the opening round. They move on to face the Texas Wildcatters, who needed four games to beat the Mississippi Sea Wolves. … In the National Conference, the Victoria Salmon Kings have a 3-1 series lead on the Bakersfield Condors and can wrap things up Saturday night at Rabobank Arena. … After losing the first two games of the series on home ice, the Fresno Falcons rebounded with a 3-0 win against the Utah Grizzlies in Game 3. The teams meet again Friday for Game 4.
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