Bulls vs Aces: WCQF Game 3 Preview

The ECHL’s Kelly Cup Quarter Finals resume tonight for the San Francisco Bulls and the Alaska Aces. It will be the first of three playoff games in three days at the Cow Palace. The series is tied 1-1 after two games in Alaska.

The Aces ended the regular season as the top team in the ECHL. Bulls Head Coach Pat Curcio described some of the things that make Alaska such a dangerous opponent:

Obviously their goaltending is exceptional. They’ve been the best in the league, they’ve won championships and of course from the defense out they’ve got great players. You don’t do what [they've done] without the players and the horses to do so.

Gerald Coleman was in goal for Alaska in the first two games of this series. Coleman was ranked second in GAA this season, has played in the last three post-seasons, twice with Alaska. In 32 games this season, he finished with a GAA of 2.17, a save percentage of .918, and 23 wins.

Kane Lafranchise, Alaska defenseman, ended the season ranked seventeenth in scoring among defensemen with 5 goals and 33 points. This is his third season with the team.

Alaska forward Nick Mazzolini finished the regular season with 36 goals and 71 points, good for ninth in the league. He has played three seasons with the Aces.

The Aces had eight players with 30 or more points this season. Only seven are with the team now, as Joey Crabb is currently playing with the AHL’s Hershey Bears. He also played 26 games with the Washington Capitals this season.

Alaska’s second goalie, Mark Guggenberger, finished the 2012-13 season ranked third in GAA, with 2.23. In 39 games played, his save percentage was also .918, with 25 wins. This is his first season with the Aces, and in the ECHL. There are just three Alaska skaters listed as rookies.

Speaking of rookies, both of San Francisco’s Ouellets, Dean and Christian, finished the regular season among the top twenty rookies in scoring. There are nine players listed as rookies for the Bulls.

The Bulls had eight players with 30 or more points this season, though one of those is Tristan King. He is out with a head injury sustained in Game Two. Dean Ouellet and Peter Sivak both landed in the top 40 overall, while Mazzolini was the only Alaska player in that group this season.

Is it relevant that four of the Bulls’ forwards (Tommy Grant, Kris Belan, Dean Ouellet and Peter Sivak) recently returned from the AHL? On March 20th, defenseman Brett Ponich was reassigned to Alaska from Peoria by the St. Louis Blues. Is recent playing time with the team more important? From last weekend’s results, the difference appears to be minimal.

Bulls center Jordan Morrison described the Aces as follows:

They’ve been a good team for years in this league and they’ve got a good corps group of guys that have been there for a while and know how to play with each other. I guess that’s a plus in their book compared to us being an inaugural team. They’re high-octane, they’re a good fast team and we.. just have to keep them off the power play.

The Aces’ power play was seventh in the league at 19.6 percent and only two short handed goals against. That adds a little pop to Kris Belan’s short-handed goal in Game One. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that the Bulls’ power play was ranked 14th during the regular season.

Alaska’s penalty kill is more daunting still, ranked first this season at 87.4 percent. San Francisco’s penalty kill, over the course of the season, was not so consistent, finishing 22nd out of 23. It was significantly better later in the year.

Probably more telling than regular season stats are the small sampling of results we have from the first two games in these playoff quarter finals. The Aces outshot the Bulls in most of their regular season meetings, and did so again in these first playoff games. Game One ended with a shot count of 40-21 Alaska. In Game Two, Alaska outshot San Francisco 32-18. To balance the daunting Alaska goalie stats mentioned earlier, San Francisco’s goalies stopped significantly more shots than Alaska’s in both games.

Curcio explained that the Bulls made some changes after the 5-1 loss in Game One:

We made some necessary adjustments in Game Two, it helped us minimize some of their scoring chances.We needed to see what they were doing on their power play in the big rink, and get our pk assimilated to what needed to be done. I think the adjustments we made were beneficial to us and now [we]‘re in a seven game series and we have to find a way to make some more adjustments here [so] that we can be creative and try to catch them off guard.

In Game One, the Alaska power play scored twice in seven chances, though they gave up the one goal. San Francisco failed to score on four power plays, but didn’t give up any short-handed goals.

In Game Two, neither team scored on the power play, and there were many opportunities for both teams. San Francisco had six, Alaska had seven.

Those results don’t look much like a best in league versus nearly worst power play. This is clearly a new season.

Does this new, high-intensity season give the players a needed push, or is it a distraction, in particular to the players who are new to the team or the playoffs? Bulls rookie Brett Findlay is sees the pressure as a positive:

I think it’s good. It’s always fun to play in a great atmosphere and in Alaska I thought the atmosphere was pretty awesome so hopefully the Cow Palace can match it.

That sounds like a gauntlet being thrown down. Findlay hasn’t been in a playoff game with the Bulls and their fans at the Cow Palace yet. No one has. It will be interesting to see how the fans respond to that challenge.

Puck drops at 7:15 PDT.

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