Sean O’ Connor was a day late but never better, hitting the game-winning goal with a little over a minute left in the third period to avoid consecutive collapses and clinch the three-game series win for the San Diego Gulls with a thrilling 4-3 triumph over the Alaska Aces on Sunday.
For the second straight night, the Gulls (10-7-2) let an early advantage slip away, but this time O’ Connor gave the fans a happy ending when he redirected a shot from Mike Garrow in front of the net with 1:13 left to seal the series win for San Diego, their second in as many weekends.
Despite the near comeback, the Aces (12-10-1) still had no answer for Max Birbraer, who involved himself in every San Diego goal, notching a pair of goals and assists. Birbraer has run amuck against Alaska in 2004, ringing up the Aces for ten of his 19 points.
A misplay by Gulls netminder Trevor Koenig provided the Aces with the opening goal only 27 seconds in. After Alaska cleared the puck into the boards near the left-wing circle, Koenig rushed out of the crease to knock the puck away, but Chris Heisten blocked his attempt and fed the puck to Jordan Cameron, who slid it into the empty net for his third goal of the season. Koenig made 19 stops in the contest.
San Diego capitalized on another goaltending error, made this time by Alaska netminder Peter Aubry, to level things up at 14:17 in the first. Aubry was in perfect position to stop Colin Shields’ backhander at the right post, but let the puck squib through his pads and across the crease, where it found its way onto Sylvain Deschatelets’ stick and into the net for the center’s fourth goal of the year.
Birbraer ripped the momentum away from the Aces with his sixth goal of the season, a slap-shot from the left-wing circle that put the Gulls ahead at 17:35. NHL veteran Curtis Brown earned the assist, taking the puck up the boards and kicking it back to the circle, where Birbraer, all alone, fired one into the top shelf. The goal capped off a strong opening frame for the Gulls, who took nine of the last ten shots in the period.
Birbraer nailed his second goal of the game at 6:51 in the second period to extend San Diego’s lead at 3-1. Andrew Canzanello, just inside the blue line, whipped a pass across the slot to Birbraer, who sent it past Aubry.
But the Aces kept right on the Gulls’ heels as Oliver Fillion notched a power-play goal from the right-wing circle at 12:23 in the second. With Deschatelets stewing in the box after a cross-checking call, Fillion took a pass from Mike Clarke and flicked a shot just above Koenig’s shoulder.
The Gulls tried valiantly to hold their lead in the beginning of the third, but eventually gave up the tying goal, a shot from just inside the blue line by Chris Minard, his 13th goal of the year, at 7:18.
Notes: The Gulls are now 6-2-0 on their season-long nine-game homestand… They are 9-2-1 overall on home ice and 1-5-1 on the road… San Diego has outscored its opponents 50-22 in its 10 wins, but has been outscored 31-13 in its nine losses (which includes an overtime and shootout loss)… Birbraer has thirteen points (6g, 7a) in his last six games while O’Connor has 11 points (7g, 4a) in his last five games. Birbraer now leads the Blue and Orange with 19 points (7g, 12a)…