By Matt Nevala
Anchorage Daily News
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – No one would have blamed a frustrated Keith McCambridge if he’d broken a few sticks against a wall, trashed the dressing room or berated his teammates.
Earlier this week, the Alaska Aces team he dutifully captains turned in the kind of performance that doesn’t prolong postseasons, falling to the Trenton Titans 3-0 in New Jersey to fall behind in the best-of-7 ECHL National Conference finals.
But McCambridge, also Alaska’s assistant coach, didn’t go off then, and he’s not about to now as the Aces face a must-win situation tonight in Game 6 at a sold-out Sullivan Arena. And it’s not like the man has an aversion to busting heads — he’s accumulated more than 1,600 penalty minutes in 10 professional hockey seasons.
McCambridge’s mean streak in games gives way to a mild-mannered nature away from the ice. So he’s choosing to remain calm, figuring nothing more needs to be said with the Aces staring at elimination and the end of their miraculous season.
“As a soft-spoken leader, I like to pick my spots, because it feels like I’ll have more of an effect,” McCambridge said. “When you’re harping on guys after every shift or between periods, it’s human nature to start blocking things out.
“We know we’ve been better, and we know we have to be better now.”
Alaska struggled at both ends of the ice in Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to the Titans at Trenton’s Sovereign Bank Arena. Both in the aftermath of the defeat and during Wednesday’s long, but uneventful, trip back home, all the Aces kept their cool. Teammates didn’t snipe at one another.
And you could sense the team’s determination. Players said they were ready to play again right away early Wednesday morning. Some joked about a potential throw-down with the Titans in the Trenton arena parking lot when the teams briefly crossed paths before busing to different East Coast airports. The veteran leadership from players like McCambridge took an immediate hold on the entire team. “You can’t really babysit 20 guys,” said center Kimbi Daniels, a veteran of 14 pro seasons. “Everyone knows what the situation is. In Game 6, we’ll have a game plan and we’ll have to make sure to stick to it.” McCambridge, 31, joins Alaska coach Davis Payne as the ones most responsible for getting the best out of the Aces tonight and, if they win, in Monday’s decisive Game 7. Regardless of the outcome, McCambridge has enjoyed one of his best postseasons — at least statistically. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, McCambridge is built for the rough stuff and plays a straight-forward, defensive defenesman’s game. He’s the first one to admit being neither shifty or extremely swift on skates. In 46 career playoff games prior to this season, he racked up two points — one goal and one assist. But in 13 games this postseason, he’s got four assists. However, it should be noted they’ve all been second assists. It’s not like McCambridge has exactly become Paul Coffey circa the 1980s and the great Edmonton Oilers teams of that era. He’s not a defenseman likely to rush end-to-end. “The way I play, being more of a defensive defenseman, any points I get should be considered a bonus,” McCambridge said. “It’s not about getting a lot of points, or any points for that matter. It’s about being a leader and getting these guys focused.”