PRINCETON, N.J. – The National Conference Finals of the 2005 Kelly Cup Playoffs open Tuesday when the Alaska Aces, who are playing without leading scorer and league Most Valuable Player Scott Gomez, host the Trenton Titans in Game 1. The winner will advance to meet the winner of the American Conference Finals, which open Monday with the Florida Everblades hosting the Charlotte Checkers.
Alaska is expecting standing-room-only crowds at 6,251-seat Sullivan Arena on Tuesday for Game 1 and on Wednesday for Game 2. The Aces, who have the two largest crowds in the postseason with 6,451 on April 18 and 25 and the third-largest crowd with 6,251 on April 13, lead the playoffs in total attendance with 24,305 and average attendance with 6,076 per game. In its first two seasons in the ECHL, Alaska has sold out five of its seven postseason games and 12 regular season games, including eight in 2004-05. The Aces increased their average attendance by more than nine percent from 2003-04 when they had increased their attendance by more than 42 percent.
Gomez, who was injured in a 4-3 overtime loss at Bakersfield in Game 4 of the West Division Semifinals, played in his hometown of Anchorage during the National Hockey League lockout. The Aces beat Bakersfield 6-2 in Game 5 to advance to the West Division Finals for the second season in a row, sweeping Long Beach in three games.
Gomez was named the ECHL Most Valuable Player in a vote of league coaches, finishing ahead of teammate Chris Minard, after leading the ECHL with 86 points and 73 assists in 61 games. Minard led the league with 49 goals and finished fourth overall with 78 points in 69 games. Gomez had four points (1g-3a) in the Kelly Cup Playoffs before his injury while Minard has seven points (3g-4a) in eight postseason games. Charles Linglet leads the Kelly Cup Playoffs with 12 points while his eight assists leads the Aces and his four goals tie him for the team lead with Joe Talbot, who is second on the team with six assists and 10 points.
Finishing first in the National Conference at 45-19-8 and 98 points, Alaska has reached the Kelly Cup Playoffs in each of its first two seasons since joining the ECHL as an expansion team in 2003-04. The Aces set team records for wins (45), points (98), road wins (23), consecutive wins (6) and consecutive road wins (5) while tying the team record for home wins (22) and consecutive home wins (4). In the opening round of the postseason a year ago, the Aces (82 points) swept regular-season point champion San Diego (108 points), the seventh-largest postseason upset (26 points) in ECHL history, before losing in the division finals to eventual champion Idaho.
Trenton is making its third conference finals appearance since 2000, the most of any team during that time, and the Titans are looking to reach the Kelly Cup Finals for the second time, having lost to South Carolina in 2001. Finishing second in the division at 42-21-9 and 93 points, Trenton, which missed the playoffs for the first time in its history in 2004, had lost six postseason games in a row before its Game 1 win against Atlantic City in the North Division Semifinals. In the only meeting between the head coaches, Davis Payne’s Pee Dee team beat Mike Haviland’s Atlantic City team 4-3 in a shootout on January 26, 2003.
Scott Bertoli has been a member of every Trenton team that has advanced to the conference finals while Vince Williams was with the Titans in 2000 and Rick Kowalsky was part of the conference championship team that advanced to the Kelly Cup Finals.
It is the second trip to Anchorage for Trenton which played a pair of preseason games at Sullivan Arena in October 2003, winning 2-1 on October 10 and losing 3-2 in a shootout on October 11. Current Titans who played in the preseason games at Alaska are Bryce Cockburn, Scott Bertoli, Vince Williams and Andrew Allen. Current Aces who played in the preseason games against Trenton are Keith McCambridge, Ryan Moren, Ryan Bast, Kimbi Daniels, Mike Scott, Charles Linglet, Joe Talbot, Jordan Cameron and Mike Lee.
The conference finals will have former teammates on separate sides, including Joe Talbot of Alaska, who was a member of Atlantic City’s Kelly Cup championship team with Trenton’s Steve Munn in 2003 and played with Trenton’s Matt Zultek on the Ottawa 67’s team that captured the Memorial Cup in 1999. Jarrett Thompson of Trenton played with Alaska’s Mike Lee and Scott Gomez with Tri-City of the Western Hockey League in 1997-98 and 1998-99 while John Ronan of Alaska and Michael Schutte of Trenton were teammates at the University of Maine in 2001-02. Leon Hayward of Trenton and Mike Jones of Alaska were teammates with Pensacola of the ECHL in 2001-02.
The finals have also reunited several players including Alaska’s Vladimir Novak and Mike Scott, who played together at the University of Alaska at Anchorage in 2000-01 and 2001-02, and Trenton’s Matt Libby and Stephen Wood, who were teammates at Providence College in 2000-01. Brent Robinson and Les Haggett of Trenton were teammates at Brown University for three seasons from 2001-04 and Leon Hayward and Tim Judy of Trenton played one season together at Northwestern University in 2001-02. Trenton’s Jarrett Thompson and Jeff Smith played together in the WHL with Red Deer in 1998-99.