Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wranglers prepare to host arch-rival Aces

By Anthony Fenech

Thursday, Oct. 22, 2009 | 10:30 a.m.

It was mid-May when a beaten and battered Las Vegas Wranglers team limped off the Orleans Arena ice, swept at the hands of their fiercest rivals from Anchorage.

Another chapter in the rivalry was complete, with the Alaska Aces finishing a four-game sweep in the ECHL National Conference Finals just a year after the Wranglers ousted Alaska in the ECHL Conference Semifinals before advancing to the Kelly Cup Finals.

This weekend, the Wranglers will have the chance to stake an early claim in this year's edition as the Aces come to town for a three-game set starting today at 7:05 p.m. at the Orleans Arena.

"The past two years when we've played them in the regular season and playoffs, it's always been a heated battle," center Adam Miller said. "They have players there that don't like our players and there's always a lot of hitting. They're just one of those teams that you gear up to beat."

The rivalry reached a boiling point on March 25, when seven players were penalized for an on-ice brawl that began when Wranglers center Chris Ferraro collided with Aces forward Matt Stefanishion.

Ferraro retaliated with a slash before 16 penalties were dispersed amongst the teams, including two game misconducts to Las Vegas' Peter Ferraro (Chris' brother) and Tim Spencer.

In the aftermath of the scrum, Chris Ferraro suffered a season-ending leg injury while Peter received a season-ending suspension from the league.

The hostility soon spread into the stands too as Alaska fans took offense to Wranglers mascot, the Duke, throwing popcorn their way. The visiting Aces fans responded by throwing beer at the Duke as fights broke out in the arena.

"When we go out to Alaska, their fans don't like us coming in there and we don't like them coming in here," Miller said.

Both teams have met in the playoffs each of the past three years, with two of those series going to the Aces, including last year's four-game sweep in which the Wranglers were outscored 14-3.

After dropping their season opener 5-3 to the Utah Grizzlies, the Wranglers know they have to find a way to win this three-game series.

Last season, the Wranglers started 0-2 thanks to an opening road trip to Alaska.

Although the Aces are 3-0 entering into Thursday's contest, first-year head coach Ryan Mougenel thinks his young team is ready for the difficult test.

"It's real important that we rebound from last game," he said. "It will show the type of character that we have in the room by how we respond."

While last Friday's scoreboard showed the Wranglers were outplayed physically by the Utah Grizzlies, Mougenel wasn't as concerned with the physical play as much as he was with the team's mental play.

"It's not that the guys didn't work hard, it's that they didn't work smart," he said. "Our players have addressed it and it won't happen again."

For Mougenel, it will be his first taste of the Las Vegas-Alaska rivalry as he searches for his first victory as an ECHL head coach.

"I try to treat every team with the same sense of rivalry," he said. "But this is different because they win all the time and we win all the time. You get two teams that have competed the way these two have over the past few years and you're going to build a competitive spirit."

The Wranglers were 3-10-1 against the Aces last year and this year's Las Vegas bunch will be younger and less experienced than the teams that battled Alaska in the past.

But that does not scare anyone in the Wranglers locker room.

"They're one of the top teams in the league again," said defenseman Robbie Bina, who joined the Wranglers this year after splitting time last season between the Stockton Thunder and various AHL squads. "It's going to be good to see where we stand early. I've heard some things, I'm sure I'll find out more about it when the games start."

While the early-season showdown with the perennial ECHL power might seem problematic because the Wranglers have only been on the ice together for three games (two exhibition, one regular season), Mougenel isn't concerned.

"It's great," he said. "It's all positive. We need to be challenged and we're looking forward to the challenge."

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