STOCKTON, Calif. – It is official, the Stockton Thunder will advance to the Western Conference Semifinals and will face the top seeded Alaska Aces starting in Alaska on Friday, April 19.
This promises to be an exciting series. Here is a look at how these two teams have succeeded in past seasons and how they measure up to one another.
Alaska has won two Kelly Cups since their inaugural season in 2003-04, first in 2006, under the direction of Coach Davis Payne and again in 2011 under Coach Brent Thompson. Last season (2012), Alaska defeated Stockton in the Western Conference Semifinals in five games (best of seven series); however, the Aces ultimately lost in five games to the Las Vegas Wranglers in the Conference Finals. In 2010, Stockton knocked the Aces out of the playoffs in the first round with four games (best of five). These were the only two times the Aces and Thunder have faced each other in the post season.
Since joining the team in 2011, Head coach Rob Murray has led the Aces to two consecutive division titles, and their seventh in nine seasons.
This season, the Aces finished first in their conference, winning the Mountain Division with 49-15-4-4, and amassing 106 points this season, clinching a playoff position earlier than ever before. They finished 26-8-2 at home and 23-7-2-4 away.
Since the Thunder’s first season in Stockton, in 2005, they have advanced to the post-season seven consecutive seasons. 2010 was their best finish, when they advanced to the third round, Conference Finals, under the direction of Coach Matt Thomas, after knocking Alaska and Bakersfield out of contention, only to fall to Idaho in six games (best of seven series).
This season, Stockton finished second in the Pacific Division, with 37-26-5-4 and 83 points. They finished 22-11-2-1 at home and 15-15-3-3 away.
Coach Thomas has consistently led his team to the playoffs in each of his eight seasons. Thomas was the assistant coach when the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies won the Kelly Cup in 2003, and under his direction as head coach of the Fresno Falcons in 2006, his team lost a heart breaker, in double overtime, in game seven in the conference finals to the eventual Kelly Cup Champion Alaska Aces. He began his first full season with the Thunder in 2009-10.
The Thunder finished their regular season 2-6-2 against Alaska. But as many will say, those numbers are nothing but statistics and have nothing to do with the upcoming games in round two. There are some players remaining on each team that appeared on the post-season roster last year. For the Thunder this includes defensemen Mike Little and Tony DeHart, forwards Matt Reber, Gabriel Levesque, Garet Hunt and Cameron Abney and Goaltender Olivier Roy. For the Aces, defensemen Steve Ward and Kane Lafranchise, forwards Zach Harrison, Nick Mazzolini, and Tim Hall, and goaltender Gerald Coleman.
The Aces advanced from round one after defeating the San Francisco Bulls, the newest member to the Western Conference in five games. Center Bobby Hughes has been a tremendous force on the team, leading with five goals and four assists, with a plus one, while Forward Zach Harrison has four goals, two assists and a plus six. Forward Garry Nunn has five points, and both Forward Alexandre Imbeault and Defenseman Steve Ward have four points each. Defenseman Brett Ponich and Forward Chris Clackson each have plus four.
The Thunder advanced after battling Las Vegas in seven games, including two overtime wins. Forward Ryan Hayes leads the Thunder in points, with three goals and four assists. Both Forward Andrew Clark and Defenseman Ryan Constant each have a goal and five assists. Center Harrison Reed and Forward Shawn Weller each have three goals and two assists. Clark and Forward Garet Hunt lead their team with plus four, while Defenseman Shawn Boutin, Mike Little and Nik Pokulok each have plus three.
The net for the Aces has been a shared responsibility. Gerald Coleman played in three games, and has a .928 save percentage and 1.67 goals-against-average. While Mark Guggenberger has played in their last two games following his return from AHL, and has a 3.0 goals-against-average and .893 save percentage. During the regular season, Guggenberger (25-8-2) played in 39 games, and posted a .918 save percentage, with 2.23 goals-against-average, with three shutouts. Coleman (23-6-2) appeared in 32 games, and also had a .918 save percentage, with 2.17 goals-against-average, with two shutouts.
Stockton has used Olivier Roy in the net for all seven games of the post-season, only allowing Tyler Bunz to play relief in game four, in an effort to change the momentum of the game. Roy has a 3.04 goals-against-average and .891 save percentage. Bunz has a .952 save percentage and 1.23 goals-against-average in his 49 minutes. During the regular season, Bunz (16-16-2-2) appeared in 37 games, and had a 3.35 goals-against-average and .886 save percentage. Roy (7-2) played in nine games, with a .961 save percentage and 1.21 goals-against-average. Each goalie posted a single shutout during the regular season.
As mentioned earlier, these are all just numbers now. It’s heart that will likely be the determining factor in the remaining playoff rounds. Admittedly, player skill will be key, but any of these players can have exceptionally great nights, and step up for their team, or the reverse could happen. It is anyone’s guess.
Based solely on history and the numbers the Aces have the upper hand in this game. The Thunder’s defense will really need to step up and keep the puck from the net, and stay healthy. The seven games against the Wranglers may have taken a toll on many of the guys physically. In game seven, Matt Bergland took a nasty hit, early in the game, forcing him to leave the ice for the duration for precaution. He’s been one of the teams most improved players during the season in both playmaking and goal scoring opportunities. The near week long break between the series will be good for the guys on both teams to allow them to heal their bodies.
Following game seven, Wranglers head coach made a comment, “They just wanted it more than we did,” referencing Stockton’s win for the series.
It comes down to which team has the most desire to lay it on the line and do everything it takes to get to that next level. Whatever their mantra, one game at a time, only time will tell which team wants it more.
The Western Conference semifinals Alaska versus Stockton, begins Friday and Saturday, April 19 and 20, in Alaska, then returns to Stockton on Thursday, April 25, April 26 and 28, then back to Alaska if needed on Tuesday, April 30 and Wednesday, May 1. The winner of this series will advance to take on the winner of the Idaho Steelheads and Ontario Reign series taking place over a similar timespan for the Western Conference final.