The Alaska Aces come to Boise for the first time this season on Wednesday night, riding a five game winning streak and within striking distance of first place in the Mountain Division. That wasn’t the case for the Aces last season, finishing last in the West Division and giving up the fifth-most goals in the league. Yet Alaska’s dramatic improvement and 11-4-1 record have not been the product of a dramatic overhaul of last season’s roster. Rather, it’s been a lot of the same performers, with some key additions.
Eight players have returned to the Aces from last year’s squad. That squad had a feisty nature, beating the Steelheads in four of 12 meetings but giving them a battle in nearly all of them. The Aces ranked second in the league in shots on goal, but struggled to score and had the second-worst goals-against average in the Western Conference. Both issues have been largely rectified this season.
The Aces average 2.44 goals-against per game this season, the best mark in the ECHL. The Aces brought in two new goaltenders in the off-season, Kevin Carr from the Tulsa Oilers and former Quinnipiac goaltender and Vancouver Canucks prospect Michael Garteig. Garteig is 7-1-0 and Carr is 4-3-0, with both goaltenders in the league’s top-10 in goals-against average. In five of Carr’s eight starts, he has given up two goals or fewer. Garteig is currently up with AHL Utica.
The Aces feature the league’s third-best penalty kill and two of the top-10 scorers. Peter Sivak is third in the ECHL with 25 points in 16 games, his 13 goals tied for tops in the ECHL. Stephen Perfetto is eighth in the league with 22 points, but has done his damage in just 13 games with a two-game call to AHL San Antonio mixed in. Sivak averaged better than a point-per-game last season as well, while Perfetto is seeing an uptick in production in his second full season and is, at the moment, still up with the Rampage.
The Aces currently have four players averaging better than a point-per-game.
The Steelheads are riding a season-high seven-game points streak as they look to close out a torrid November. Idaho is 8-2-1 this month and sit tied for first place in the Mountain Division after a two-game sweep of the two-time defending Kelly Cup champion Allen Americans. The Steelheads have also won four straight contests at CenturyLink Arena.
Jefferson Dahl remains the Steelheads leading scorer with 22 points in 18 games, but several other Steelheads are joining the party in recent weeks. Anthony Luciani has three goals and six points in his last five games, including a breakaway tally on Saturday night. Travis Ewanyk has five goals and eight points in the past eight games, and his seven goals now tie Dahl for the team-lead.
The Steelheads power play ranks second in the league and has been among the league’s best for most of the season, but it will need some new characters to step up after defenseman Brandon Anselmini was recalled to AHL Texas on Sunday. Anselmini was tied for second in the league with eight power play points following his power play goal on Saturday. Dahl remains the league-leader with nine power play points.
Landon Bow was also recalled on Sunday after winning seven of his last eight outings. Philippe Desrosiers, who won 15 games with Idaho last season, returns to Boise with forward Branden Troock.
The Steelheads’ penalty kill was their strongest asset last year, ranked second in the league, and it’s creeping to that level once again. The Idaho kill is ninth in the league after killing 27 of 29 penalties and scoring two short-handed goals in the past eight games.
STEELHEAD TO WATCH
The Steelheads hope to have Rob Linsmayer back in the lineup soon after the forward was injured on Friday against the Americans and missed the game Saturday. In the meantime, the other winger on the high-flying first line with Jefferson Dahl will be expected to pick up some of the slack. That didn’t seem like an issue for rookie Will Merchant over the weekend, with Merchant grabbing an assist in each game and continuing his strong work in front of the net on the power play. Merchant is in the midst of a three-game points streak and has two goals and five points in his past five games.
ACES TO WATCH
With many of his teammates exceeding their 2015-16 scoring pace, one Ace still looking to get his scoring game going is Justin Breton. The former college teammate of Brandon Komm at Bentley College netted 23 goals and 41 points in 66 games with Alaska during his second pro season, but has not had nearly the same success this season. Breton has just one goals and four points in 15 games this season, and no multi-point games. Breton scored five goals and eight points against Idaho last season, and the Aces would love to get him going this week.
Just like last year, the Aces do a heck of a job getting shots to the net. This year, however, those shots are going in, with Alaska ranked seventh in offense. Combine that with Alaska’s top-ranked defense in the ECHL in goal-per-game, and the Steelheads can prepare themselves for some low-scoring affairs if they want to have success. The Steelheads defense was solid against the Americans, with Corbin Baldwin and Charlie Dodero doing their usual shut-down job but with Travis Walsh stepping up with a great defensive weekend as well. The Steelheads will want to use Alaska’s aggressiveness against it, using active sticks and shot-blocking and turning it into quick-transition offense, much like fans saw on Anthony Luciani’s breakaway goal over the weekend.