Salmon Kings, Aces Too Close To Call

By Cleve Dheensaw
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2009

VICTORIA, British Columbia – You would have had to be a long way from this province not to know how the Stanley Cup playoff matchup between the Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues turned out this week.

Now, two steps down from the Show, their respective ECHL affiliates meet in the Kelly Cup playoffs. Either the Blues-affiliate Alaska Aces or Canucks-affiliate Victoria Salmon Kings would be a worthy Kelly Cup finalist. One of them likely will be.

That may seem presumptuous to state in the second round. But it’s hardly a league secret that the Western Division final between Victoria and Alaska represents the loaded side of the draw in the National Conference playoffs. This is not to discount the Pacific Division finalist Las Vegas Wranglers or Stockton Thunder. But the best-of-seven West Division final, beginning Friday at 8:15 p.m. PDT in Anchorage, features the conference top-seed Aces and third-seed Salmon Kings. The Wranglers and Thunder are the fifth and eighth seeds, respectively, in the conference.

“These are obviously two very good teams and it’s going to be an intense battle,” said Victoria forward Adam Taylor, whose two-way grit was instrumental and indicative in the four-game sweep of the division and conference second-seed Idaho Steelheads in the first round of the playoffs.

“They have a bigger rink up here, but we have to do what was successful against Idaho. We can’t run around. We have to play good defence, play under control and make smart choices. With the way we play, less is more. It’s the little things we do that add up over the course of a game.”

To follow Friday’s game, go to the websites of either team or the league for pay-per-view video or free play-by-play audio. Game 2 is Saturday at Anchorage before the series shifts to Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre for the third and fourth games Wednesday and next Friday.

Alaska won the regular-season series 8-5 over Victoria. All five Salmon Kings losses, however, were by one goal including three in shootouts.

Here is the series breakdown:

OFFENCE: There are no weak links in the Alaska chain. The three lines are well balanced and all can score. The crafty Josh Soares, who had four goals and eight points in the 4-1 opening-round series victory over the Utah Grizzlies, and six-foot-three Matt Stefanishion spent part of the season in the AHL. Colin Hemingway, Scott Burt, Alexandre Imbeault, Lance Galbraith and Cam Keith have been around and can all do damage. The Victoria forwards, meanwhile, came at Idaho in the first round like bulldog terriers. What they lack in finesse, they make up for in tenacity. Advantage: Alaska.

DEFENCE: In the first round, Idaho could not contain Victoria’s highly mobile rearguards such as Patrick Coulombe, Dylan Yeo and Matt Kelly. Everything Victoria does in moving the puck flows through them. Alaska’s blueline is solid, too, but in a more conventional stay-at-home fashion. Tyson Marsh of the Aces is down from the AHL Chicago Wolves while Matt Shasby received ECHL second-team all-star billing behind Victoria’s first-team Yeo, who was named league top defenceman. Bryan Miller is another Aces rearguard to watch. Advantage: Victoria.

GOALTENDING: Jean-Philippe Lamoureux backstopped the North Dakota Fighting Sioux to the NCAA Frozen Four last year. In his sensational freshman pro season, he is trying to carry Alaska to the Kelly Cup and was named ECHL first-team all-star goaltender and was runner-up in balloting for ECHL rookie of the year. Lamoureux recorded a stingy 1.38 goals-against average in the five opening-round playoff games against Utah. Victoria’s Todd Ford was so lights out in the first round against Idaho, allowing just four goals in four games, that he was featured on Ford needs to stay hot. Advantage: Even.

COACHING: Mark Morrison has the Salmon Kings playing with intensity, sharpness and drive. Keith McCambridge of Alaska has done his usual effective job in keeping the Aces on top of their game. Advantage: Even.

INTANGIBLES: Each year, Alaska simply expects to go deep into the playoffs as some sort of Kelly Cup birthright. This is a franchise that expects success and it has advanced past the first round in each of its six years in the ECHL. Stats, such as holding Utah 0-23 on the power play in the first round, don’t hurt. And in the case of a long series, as this very well may be, the 2-3-2 format means the Aces will get the potential Games 6 and 7 at home in Sullivan Arena. Yet the Salmon Kings are steadily gaining a quiet but steadfast confidence. Because of a bye in the final week of the regular season, and the sweep of Idaho in the first round, the Salmon Kings have only played four games in the past four weeks. They have the kind of fresh legs rare for this time of year. And they use them. Advantage: Even.

PREDICTION: A tough toss-up, but Alaska in seven games on the basis of home-ice advantage in the series.