The Alaska Aces, first-year affiliate of the St. Louis Blues, won the 2006 Kelly Cup Championship on Thursday beating the Gwinnett Gladiators 4-1 in the final series. Gwinnett is the third-year affiliate of the Atlanta Thrashers.
The Aces are only the second team in the 18-year history of the ECHL to win both the regular season point championship and the postseason championship.
Alaska blended good offense, good defense, and don’t forget the recipe for championships – good goaltending.
Gladiator Guillaume Desbiens (ATL) said as the team practiced before Game 3 that Alaska had the best goaltending of any team Gwinnett had faced in the playoffs. The statistics bear it out.
The 1-2 punch of veteran Matt Underhill and Chris Beckford-Tseu (STL) had a combined save percentage of .920 in the playoffs. Beckford-Tseu had an 8-4 record, three shutouts, and a save percentage of .930. He gave up six goals to the Gladiators in Game 4 of the finals, one blemish on an otherwise stellar record.
The Gladiators, in contrast, had a team save percentage of just .882. Adam Berkhoel (ATL) and Sean Fields split the starts very evenly as they did in the regular season, with almost identical stats. Berkhoel was 6-3 with a .882 save percentage to Fields’ 5-3 record and .886 save percentage.
In the regular season, the Gladiators’ offense could make up for whatever else the team lacked. In the playoffs, the offense was hobbled by injuries, some public, some not, and there was much less room for error.
This was evident in Game 3 of the finals. Down 2-0 in the series coming home, the Gladiators looked like they could eke out a victory until a horrendous giveaway by rookie Adam Courchaine at the blue line lead to a short-handed breakaway and goal, reversing the momentum of the game for good. Courchaine hung his head in shame on the bench, but against other teams, Gwinnett has overcome such mistakes by just scoring more goals. Courchaine did score one himself later that game in fact, but against Alaska it was not enough.
The teams were lead by two coaches very different in temperament, the reserved Davis Payne of Alaska, versus the heart-on-his-sleeve Jeff Pyle of Gwinnett. In Game 4 after watching his team go down 1-0, Payne said nothing at all to them during a TV timeout, a feat that Pyle could never accomplish by his own admission. Pyle is an X’s and O’s coach, but it’s not why his players play hard for him.
In the end, Pyle was proud of his players for all they accomplished, but most proud that the organization did it the right way.
“That’s why we wanted to win it so bad,” he said when it was all over. “We wanted to be the team that does it right, that doesn’t have fictitious call-ups, fictitious two-ways. We move our guys up. We’ve sent 14 guys to nine different AHL teams and I don’t know if there’s too many other teams that can say that.”
Pyle spent hours on the phone trying to get an AHL team to give Chris Durno a chance this year. The Milwaukee Admirals signed him to a tryout in December and are still using him in the Calder Cup finals. Durno is a scoring center the Gladiators could have used desperately at the end, but having made the choice to try to move him up, didn’t get him back.
The Gladiators also added Boston Bruins as an affiliate midway through the season when they received Milan Gajic, who is under contract with Providence, Boston’s farm club.
Another part of “doing it the right way” is keeping in the spirit of the developmental league and giving young guys a chance. There were nine rookies on the ending roster, and the Gladiators were perhaps the only team in the league that didn’t use its allotment of veteran players. Two of the team’s top three playoff scorers were rookies, Gajic and Desbiens, and the third, Jeff Campbell, is a second-year pro.
Desbiens finished with 10 goals and six assists, which tied him second on the team with Campbell in playoff scoring. The Thrashers former fourth-round pick had an almost dream season and was one of the few who could report that he was perfectly healthy at the end.
The injuries on offense began with Joel Stepp (ATL), who suffered a ruptured spleen during the conference finals and had to have emergency surgery that ended his season. He was the team’s third leading scorer at the time.
Though he could have gone home to recover, Stepp stayed with the team. He did a lot of sitting and watching, tough for any athlete.
“You want to be out there doing anything to help the team win,” he said after Game 4. “It’s frustrating.”
Stepp is now the owner of a very dramatic 10-inch scar down the middle of his abdomen, but he’s healing.
“It’s getting better and better every day. Still pretty stiff to walk and around and stuff, but every day gets better.”
Stepp must wait for clearance to start exercise from trauma surgeon Tom Duncan. The initial estimate was light exercise after four weeks, serious training after eight. The first four weeks is just about up, so he can start light exercise, such as riding the exercise bike, when he returns home to Canada.
“It will be good to actually be able to do something,” he said.
Brad Schell (ATL) suffered a Grade 2 separation to his left shoulder in Game 5 against Toledo, not quite serious enough to keep him from the lineup, but enough to keep him from taking faceoffs because he couldn’t draw his arm back with force. Schell had been averaging 62 percent on the year, so losing both him and Stepp a big blow. It left the team with Courchaine as the only natural center.
In the last three minutes of the deciding game, the player taking desperate offensive zone draws, goalie already pulled, was defenseman Matt York. Of the lack of faceoff ability, Schell acknowledged “it hurt us.”
Schell, who wore a brace on the shoulder, said his ligaments were only stretched, not torn. He will have rest it for about four weeks to let it heal. Surgery is not thought to be necessary.
The 22-year-old second-year pro managed 13 points in the playoffs, tied for fifth on the team.
Another injury on offense was to 2005-06 league MVP Campbell, who split open his pinky finger in Alaska and had to receive treatments in order to play. Between Campbell and Schell, the Gladiators’ top line was not anywhere close to 100 percent.
The only player to get well during the playoffs was defenseman Lane Manson (ATL), who came off the IR for the Florida series from a subluxed sternum. He played nine of the 17 playoff games, his best coming in Game 4 of the finals.
“Lane played phenomenal,” Pyle said afterwards. “He was physical, he was a force out there and that’s what we need him to do.”
Pyle played eight defensemen in the lineup for most of the playoffs, moving two defensemen to forward, York and Steve Slaton.
Estranged tough guy Adam Smyth (ATL) found his way back into the lineup due to the situation at forward, however. Unsure if and when Campbell and Schell might become too injured to play, Pyle inserted Smyth back into the lineup in Game 2 of the finals.
“He played really well,” Pyle said between Games 2 and 3. “He played the game. I told him ‘you’re not going to scare them, they’re not going to scare us. We’re not going to intimidate each other, we’re going to go out there and physically punish each other’ and that’s what I need him to do. And he did a pretty good job of it. When he drive the net, he can help.”
Smyth’s return to the lineup would be short-lived, however, as he was scratched again in Games 4 and 5 of the finals. In all, Smyth played just six games in the playoffs.
The mood in the Gladiators locker room was somber after watching Alaska hoist the cup on their territory. Taking off their gear meant admitting it was over, and that was a tough thing to do.
“Losing Stepper hurt – big banging forward, a point a game guy,” Pyle said after he ceremoniously erased the locker room play board for the final time. “But we worked too hard to be disappointed.
“The guys played hard, gave it everything. Alaska deserved it, they just outplayed us, bottom line.”
Captain Cam Brown, the ECHL career leader with 789 games played in 13 seasons, will now retire, but without having ever won a championship. It didn’t go unnoticed, even on such a youthful team.
Manson said “I’m 22, I’ll get another shot” at a championship, but he was broken up about the 37-year-old he had sat next to in the locker room for two years not getting another chance.
“You get sent down to the East Coast, no one wants to be here, everyone’s got a reason why they’re here. You get sent down but the silver lining was the chance to go all the way and win it for Brownie. Coming so close, it breaks your heart seeing a guy playing for so long and such a good guy, great family man, great role model,” Manson said, tearing up, after the fateful Game 5.
“He’s really helped me out, especially this year. He’s like a big brother or dad, down here anyways. I’m upset for me, but I’m more upset for him.”
Manson, one of the team’s alternate captains, plans a summer of hard training at the University of Saskatchewan.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.