Thursday, December 31, 2009

Robbie Bina makes ECHL All-Star roster

By Anthony Fenech

Thursday, Dec. 31, 2009 | 7:32 p.m.

Robbie Bina is beating the odds.

Just five years removed from an injury that left his playing career in doubt, the undersized Wranglers defenseman has paved a road to recovery that now leads to the ECHL All-Star Game.

"It's great to be chosen," Bina said. "There are going to be a lot of great players and I'm lucky to be there, it's an exciting thing."

Bina has played 21 games for the Wranglers while spending a short period of time with the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League. He ranks fifth among league defenseman with 14 assists and eighth with 18 points in 21 games.

"The season has been going good," said Bina. "I'm getting points and just trying to help out the team in whichever way I can."

Listed at 5-foot-8, he is the shortest Wranglers but you wouldn't necessarily be able to tell thanks to his hard-nosed, smart play on the ice.

The 26-year-old Bina received the news of his all-star selection over the phone Wednesday from head coach Ryan Mougenel. Bina will be starting for the National Conference alongside Ontario Reign defenseman David Walker.

"I wasn't really expecting it," he said. "I was just kind of sitting around and got the call that I was chosen. It should be a good time."

This year's All-Star Game will be held in Ontario, Calif., hosted by the Reign.

It's Bina's first all-star game appearance since he first started playing organized hockey at age 4, and it represents the hard work and determination that stemmed from a March night in 2005.

The hit took place in the Fighting Sioux's Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five playoff game against Denver. Bina, a sophomore at the time, was hit from behind by Denver's Geoff Paukovich.

The hit damaged vertebrae in Bina's neck and required surgery to remove one vertebrae and repair two others.

"I was a little nervous," he said about the aftermath of the injury. "But the doctor was positive and it was a long road to recovery but I stuck to it."

He missed the next season and made an impactful return two years later, scoring 32 points in 43 games as North Dakota advanced to the Frozen Four before being eliminated by Boston College in the semifinals.

"It was tough," he said of the year off. "But it might have helped out because I finally realized my love for the game."

"It's all about going out there, working hard, battling for everything and not backing down."

Roster report: Effective Wednesday, forward Ryan Weston has been loaned to AHL San Antonio. Weston totaled 12 points in 15 games with Las Vegas, tallying five goals and seven assists.

"I just tell myself to keep working hard," Weston said. "If I do, good things will follow, whether its in Vegas or otherwise."

He made his season debut Nov. 20 after a month and a half rehabbing a torn MCL he had injured during San Antonio's training camp.

"I wouldn't be up here if it wasn't for my teammates," he said. "They've been great this year."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wranglers knock off Idaho, 3-1, in midnight game

By Anthony Fenech

Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009 | 7:03 a.m.

Kyle Hagel knows how to finish what he starts.

Seconds before Tuesday night turned into Wednesday morning at the Orleans Arena, Hagel dropped his gloves and went toe-to-toe with Idaho forward and former Wrangler Adam Huxley.

The fight jolted both the buzzing Midnight Holiday Roundup crowd of 4,603 and the recently red-hot Wranglers.

A period later Hagel put away the first-place Steelheads with his fourth goal of the season. His second-period score proved to be the game-winner in the Wranglers' 3-1 victory.

"It was an awesome win for us," Hagel said. "They're a really good team. We knew we had to play really well and not many guys get the opportunity to play a game like we just did."

Late in the second period with the game tied at 1-all, Hagel streaked across Idaho's blue line alongside forward Jeff Hazelwood for a 2-on-1.

Hagel closed in on Steelheads goalie Richard Bachman and found daylight between the goalie's blocker and right leg pad.

"The defenseman was pretty far away from me so I decided to keep it, shoot it, and it found the net," he said.

While Hagel's goal was the difference in the team's seventh-annual midnight game, Wranglers coach Ryan Mougenel thought Hagel's pre-midnight fight was another key.

"One-hundred percent I thought Hags' fight set the tone," Mougenel said. "His fight, his goal — he's just a kid who's the pulse of the team sometimes."

"It's not an easy job, putting your face on the line," he said of Hagel stepping up early on, "but I'm sure if you ask him, he'll probably tell you he likes doing it."

Hagel said he spotted Huxley before the faceoff and knew he was willing to fight.

"It was a midnight game and everyone was excited," Hagel said. "So I figured, why not? Let's get the fans into it right away."

For Huxley, his old stomping grounds soon felt like home again. The forward played two years for Las Vegas and his 294 penalty minutes in the 2004-05 season is the team's single-season record.

The win is the Wranglers' third straight — the team's longest streak of the season — and a signature victory as it came against an Idaho squad that leads the ECHL in points.

Mick Lawrence opened the scoring at the 11:16 mark of the first period, when Jason Krischuk peppered a slap shot off Bachman's right pad. Lawrence, flying through the Idaho zone, slapped home the rebound.

Idaho's Brad Miller tied the game 3:10 into the second period with a controversial goal.

On the penalty kill with the puck in his own zone, a Steelheads skater cleared the puck just as the penalty came to a close.

Charging out of the box in chase was Miller, who retrieved the puck after it sailed past Las Vegas' red-line to the right of Wranglers goalie Michael Ouzas. Miller then went top shelf for his third goal of the year.

"Just like players, referees will make mistakes, too," Mougenel said. "As a young coach, I'm learning that, but I thought it should have been icing."

As did Ouzas, and the goal was his only mistake on an otherwise spotless night.

"It was just one of those things," Ouzas said. "I saw him out of the box, thought it was icing and let it go. Just a bad bounce, really."

Nursing a one-goal lead in the third period, the Wranglers twice had opportunities to put the game away — first with a four-minute power play and then with a two-man advantage for nearly two minutes. Las Vegas took advantage of neither opportunity, though Lawrence did add his second goal on an empty-net shot in the closing seconds.

"I'm not happy about our power play," Mougenel said. "We have to get that going or we're not going to win too many games.

"I feel like sometimes we don't put our foot on the gas and attack, which is a big stress of mine."

Las Vegas is 2 for 31 with the man advantage in their past three games, but is also 17 for 19 in penalty kills.

"The penalty kill really stepped up and I thought Ouzas was our best penalty killer out there tonight," Mougenel said.

The victory improves the Wranglers' record to 3-2-2 in Midnight Holiday Roundup games.

Three stars: 1. Kyle Hagel (Goal); 2. Mick Lawrence (Two goals); 3. Michael Ouzas (18 saves)

Heavy hitter: Defenseman John Schwarz, for pounding Steelheads center Matt McKnight into the visitors penalty box late in the second period. The hit came moments after Lawrence and Idaho defenseman Matt Sorteberg were hauled off the ice for fighting, just as the physical play started picking up.

Take 10: Lawrence's empty-net goal to seal the game pushed him into the team lead, with 10 goals on the year.

Outstanding Ouzas: The goaltender has only allowed four goals in his past three games, all victories, and as of Monday ranked third in the league in minutes played with 1,236.

Up next: A weekend double-dip at home against the Utah Grizzlies. The Wranglers are 1-7-0-1 against Utah this season.

Final word: "It's an amazing thing," Mougenel said of the midnight game. "It's unique, it's our own, and we should be proud of it."

Wranglers fans turn out in pajamas for midnight hockey

By Anthony Fenech

Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009 | 2:08 a.m.

The clock struck midnight, the puck dropped and for the seventh consecutive year the Las Vegas Wranglers proved their city never sleeps.

Fans filled the Orleans Arena late Tuesday, hundreds of them dressed in pajamas and sleepwear, as they watched the Wranglers battle the Idaho Steelheads in the 2009 Midnight Holiday Roundup. The Wranglers left the ice with a 3-1 win.

"It's a great idea," said Wranglers fan Tony Mascari. "They draw more and more every year, and it's really a unique atmosphere."

Joining Mascari at the game was his son, Mike, and while both are self-proclaimed hockey followers, work and school schedules sometimes conflict with number of Wranglers games they can attend.

"It's great for those of us that work swing shifts and aren't able to come to all of the games," Mascari said. "It's not too early and it's not too late for us."

Mascari has frequented the Midnight Roundups since they were introduced and said he enjoys the energy of the crowd more than anything.

"I remember the first time I brought my son to the midnight game," he said. "The people behind us said they couldn't believe I was bringing a kid there. The crowds are pretty rambunctious."

While the start time might seem geared toward a younger crowd, the veteran fans in the stands said they had no problem with the late start.

Judy Manafto and Robin Lett, two retired friends from Las Vegas, were convinced to attend by their husbands and said they're always up late anyway.

They laughed at the notion that their internal clocks might start winding down by the end of the game.

"We'll be kicking until three or four this morning," Manafto said. "It gives us something to do instead of watch television."

The pair said they come to a few Wranglers games each year but try not to miss the Midnight Roundup.

"I like to see everyone in their pajamas," Manafto said. "It's funny."

Lett just enjoys watching hockey, and because Las Vegas doesn't have a National Hockey League team, the Wranglers are the next best option.

"Here, we're a 24-hour town and this just proves it," she said. "But I'd come if it was at 3 a.m. if I could. I love hockey and I love the fights."

She didn't have to wait long. Wranglers forward Kyle Hagel and Idaho left-winger Adam Huxley squared off two seconds into the game.

"That was quite a fight," she said during the first intermission. "I don't know if anything can top that tonight."

The Midnight Roundup consistently is among the best-attended games each year for the Wranglers. A half hour before the game, fans formed a lengthy line outside of the ticket booth.

"There's always an enjoyable group of people here," concession worker Abe Wysotski said while gesturing toward an open bar area in the Orleans Arena concourse.

"Whatever it is, it brings people in here," he said. "This game is always one of the best."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wranglers, Steelheads to face off in midnight game

By Anthony Fenech

Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2009 | 2:01 a.m.

Long a staple of college basketball, Midnight Madness is returning to Las Vegas — for the minor league hockey Wranglers.

For the seventh-straight year, the Las Vegas Wranglers will host their Midnight Holiday Roundup tonight at Orleans Arena when they face off against the Idaho Steelheads. The puck will drop at 11:59 p.m.

Wranglers President Billy Johnson was introduced to the concept of a midnight promotion while a student at the University of Kentucky. The school's men's basketball team started each season with a late-night practice that filled the renowned Rupp Arena, and the event stuck with Johnson to his current position.

"The fans really like it," he said. "We attract a different crowd, and it's a different kind of atmosphere for the game."

The fans aren't the only ones in the arena who enjoy the unusual game.

Wranglers captain Chris Neiszner has played in four midnight games with the franchise, and each time the game has proven to be more enjoyable than the other 71 on the schedule.

"It's something that's a little different and out of the norm which makes it a lot of fun," Neiszner said. "Anyone that hasn't been to Vegas definitely hasn't been through it.

"The atmosphere is great and there's nothing better to do than face a tough team like Idaho."

The Steelheads are second in the ECHL at 22-6 with 46 points and sit atop the National Conference West Division. The Wranglers (11-14-3) come in riding both a two-game winning streak and a four-game point streak.

"I'm sure (Idaho head coach) Derek Laxdal probably isn't too happy playing a midnight game," Wranglers coach Ryan Mougenel said. "Hopefully our guys adapt a little bit quicker but we're going to enjoy it, run with it and have fun."

But the different taste of hockey won't come without a price for players and coaches, both of which are creatures of habit.

Instead of the normal 10 a.m. pregame skate, the Wranglers will take the ice at 3 p.m.

Instead of arriving around 5 p.m. for the game, they'll show up around 10 p.m.

"Basically, you throw everything you usually do out the window," Neiszner said. "You don't have a choice."

But Mougenel sees a hidden benefit.

"Knowing how some of my players are," Mougenel said, "they'll probably operate best at that time of night so it could be good in that respect."

The game is expected to bring in a larger quantity of fans with a different quality.

"The timing of the game is good because it feed games later in the season," Johnson said. "Whenever we can get new bodies to the game, it's good."

Johnson expects upwards of 5,000 fans, with more entertainment workers and fewer season-ticket holders attending.

"A lot of our season-ticket holders can't go because of work obligations the next morning," he said. "But it also affords us the opportunity to cater to the service jobs and entertainers that always can't watch the games because they're working."

For first-year head coach Mougenel, the buzz he's heard surrounding the game has fueled his excitement.

"We hear it from the fans and it's nice to have our own kind of spin on it," Mougenel said. "When you have something as unique as a midnight game when nobody else does it in pro hockey, that's something good to embrace."


Oh, Francis: In his first and only return game with the Wranglers on Saturday, center Francis Lemieux scored two goals, leading Las Vegas to a 4-2 win over Ontario.

Lemieux, who was recalled to the American Hockey League's Grand Rapids Griffins on Dec. 18, returned Saturday but once again was recalled to Grand Rapids on Monday.

The victory was the Wranglers second in a row against the Reign, whom they are 4-0-1 against this season.

"I was very happy with our effort," Mougenel said. "They dictated the play and got results from the get-go."

Michael Ouzas stopped 32 of 34 shots in the victory.

"We play hard against them," Neizner said. "To get wins before and after Christmas, I think those are building blocks for our team."

Las Vegas still sits beneath Ontario (13-15-2) in the standings, but has considerably closed the gap in the past three head-to-head games.

"We're still looking up at them trying to catch them," Mougenel said, "But the thing we do well against them is establish our physical play."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Brother of new UNLV coach says Rebels have a winner

By Anthony Fenech

Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2009 | 4:01 p.m.

One gift down, one to go.

Christmas is still two days away, but the Hauck family already has opened its first football present of the holiday season.

Former Montana football coach Bobby Hauck afternoon was introduced Wednesday at Thomas & Mack Center as the 10th football coach in UNLV history.

And sitting 1,800 miles away in Nashville, his little brother was smiling.

"I can't stop smiling," Tim Hauck said over the phone from the Tennessee Titans compound in Nashville. "I'm just really happy for him."

Hauck is in his first year as the secondary coach for the Titans.

"I've really seen him mature over the years in Montana," he said. "Bobby had a great idea of what he wanted to do and what he wanted to achieve. I have to give him credit because year after year, his guys were performing at a high level."

Bobby Hauck arrives in Las Vegas fresh off back-to-back Football Championship Series title-game appearances with the Grizzlies, the latter of which came Thursday, when Montana fell to Villanova, 23-21.

"I really believe he was born to be a head coach," Tim Hauck said. "He knows how to juggle a team rather than just one position or one side of the ball and he's very well-rounded with his football knowledge."

During Bobby Hauck's seven years in Montana, he posted an 80-17 record with seven Big Sky championships, and Tim Hauck believes Rebel fans can count on much of the same out of his older brother's performance.

"His teams will be physically tough but more importantly, mentally tough," Tim Hauck said. "They will be hard-nosed, hard-charging and disciplined. They do things right, hit people and play the game the way it's supposed to be played."

Growing up under the tutelage of their father, Bob Hauck Sr. — an accomplished head coach for 30 years at Sweet Grass County High in Big Timber, Mont. — it's no wonder both the Hauck boys have found their way in coaching.

"We grew up in the locker rooms and on the field," Tim Hauck said. "Dinner-time conversation was always about football and we probably drove our mother crazy, but we lived for it."

They also fought for it, in backyards and on fields, the one-on-one competition born in their youth now shaping their coaching careers.

"There was no holding back between us," Tim Hauck said. "It was a knock-down, drag-out competition between us. One thing I'll tell UNLV fans is that he hates to lose. On the field and off the field, he's a competitor."

During Wednesday's press conference, Bobby Hauck mentioned there were candidates from the Big 12, Pac-10 and Mountain West conferences under consideration to join his staff. He wouldn't speculate on any Montana assistants making the move because of their potential candidacy for the Grizzlies head-coaching position.

However, don't expect his brother to be heading to the Las Vegas Valley. Tim Hauch said he would like to one day coach with his brother, but expects to stay in Tennessee.

"I have a job that I really love and enjoy," he said. "I would like to coach with him one day, whenever or wherever that may be, but I'm really happy with my present job."

Tim Hauck is busy preparing for the Titans' Christmas night game against the San Diego Chargers.

"It's been a whirlwind week for everyone," he said. "He had his championship game, went to Vegas to interview, got the job and now I have to hold up my end of things."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Physical style of play gives Wranglers a spark

By Anthony Fenech

Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2009 | 2:08 a.m.

The puck dropped and the gloves followed.

Early in the second period of Saturday night's game between the Las Vegas Wranglers and Ontario Reign — three seconds in, to be exact — Wranglers defenseman Chris Frank and Reign captain James McEwan decided to dance.

"I was just doing my job," Frank said. "He was ready to go so I was ready to go."

And so the pair circled slowly in front of the visitor's penalty box, much to the delight of the 4,000-plus fans in attendance at Orleans Arena.

As the crowd rose to their feet, the two drew closer together.

"He was kind of taking control of the situation because I turned him down a couple of times earlier," Frank said. "He started to use that power trip thing on me and I was ready."

Frank initiated contact with a right hand to McEwan's head. McEwan responded, and back and forth it went, the two swinging and stopping, swinging and stopping, before a flurry of punches caused the Reign left-winger to lose his balance and fall to the ice.

"You know what guys like to scrap on the other team before the game," Frank said. "And you just go up to him, ask him if he's ready to go and he'll say yes or no."

The Wranglers knew about McEwan and picked on him in both games of the home-and-home series.

During the first period of Friday night's game in Ontario, Wranglers forward Kyle Hagel lured McEwan into a fight, igniting the Las Vegas bench early.

"When you see a guy like Kyle Hagel, who will do anything for the team, step up and fight a pretty tough guy in McEwan, the team comes together," Wranglers coach Ryan Mougenel said.

The physicality continued later in the game, when both Mick Lawrence and John Schwarz squared off with Ontario counterparts.

"It's all about coming together," Mougenel said. "If the guys don't understand that the physicality is a huge part of winning, then they're in the wrong sport."

If nothing else, the Wranglers physical play seemed to get into the head of the Ontario captain, who angrily barked at the Las Vegas bench during Friday night's game and was held pointless in both contests.

The Wranglers are now 3-1 against Ontario this season, winning 2-1 on Saturday and falling 3-2 on Friday in a shootout. The Wranglers don't play a game until they face Ontario again at 7:05 p.m. Saturday at the Orleans Arena.

"If you ever need a momentum swing or need to get the guys going, get physical," Frank said.

With four fights in two games turning into three much-needed points for the Wranglers, getting physical could be just what they needed to get going.

Home cookin': With Saturday's win, the Wranglers improved to 6-2 at Orleans Arena in their last eight games. The reported 4,792 in attendance was the third-highest total this season.

Teddy tally:: After Adam Miller's second-period goal Saturday night, Wranglers fans showered the ice with teddy bears to support the club's 7th annual Teddy Bear Toss, which benefits Sunrise Acres Elementary School.

Streak snapped:: The ECHL American League's South Carolina Stingrays (22-6-4) saw their 13-game winning streak snapped Sunday at the hands of the Charlotte Checkers, 4-2. The Stingrays lead the ECHL with 48 points and hadn't lost a game since Nov. 24.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Wranglers set pace, defeat Ontario Reign

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Dec. 19, 2009 | 11:31 p.m.

Just a day removed from Friday's loss against the Ontario Reign, where fists flew and words were exchanged, the Las Vegas Wranglers decided to get Saturday night's party at Orleans Arena started early.

So when the Reign started chirping during pregame warmups, the Wranglers chirped back.

When the Reign started pushing, the Wranglers pushed back.

But once the puck dropped at the Orleans Arena, it was the Wranglers who set the tone.

"We wanted to respond before the game started," Wranglers defenseman Chris Frank said.

Propelled by arguably their best period of hockey in weeks, the Wranglers defeated the Reign, 2-1, in the second tilt of a home-and-home series with Ontario.

"When we play determined and ready to compete, we can be a dangerous team," head coach Ryan Mougenel said. "I think the guys were disappointed in last night's performance and it carried over."

For the third time in three games, Las Vegas held a two-goal lead in the final period, but this time, unlike the previous two, the team persevered for the victory.

Shay Stephenson's tic-tac-toe third-period goal proved to be the game-winner.

The left-winger's power-play goal at the 4:48 mark of the final period was set up by a pair of brilliant cross-ice passes, the final of which connected with Stephenson's stick into the lip of the goal.

"It was nice to find a power-play goal, which we should be getting more of," Stephenson said.

Ryan Weston, who had the puck at the top of the right circle, fed it through the slot to Miller, who occupied the left circle. As the pass came, Miller saw Stephenson camping out to the right of Ontario goaltender Curtis Darling.

Miller hit Stephenson, and Stephenson hit the game-winner.

"I think it was just a merry-Christmas gift from my line mates Weston and Miller," Stephenson said.

The Wranglers opened Saturday's contest dominating on offense and defense, forcing 18 first-period shots on Darling, the team's most in any one period this season.

Defensively, Las Vegas kept Ontario from recording a shot until 8:24 left in the first.

"I thought we dictated the pace and play and definitely out-chanced them," Mougenel said. "I was very happy with the way our guys responded."

Miller opened the scoring late in the second period when he shelved a breakaway past the glove of Darling for his ninth goal of the season.

The goal was set up by a Weston pass that hit Miller in stride.

"It was a textbook play," Miller said. "It was a controlled breakout, and I just used my speed to create separation and bury it."

Fisticuffs were once again on display when Las Vegas rookie Chris Frank and Ontario captain James McEwan squared off as play began in the second period.

"I turned him down a couple of times earlier and we were both ready to go at the moment," Frank said.

The skirmish ended with McEwan on the ground as the players on the Las Vegas bench slapped their sticks against the bench.

Ouzas stopped 22 of 23 shots, his only blemish on the day coming with just under five minutes to play. Ontario's Michael Pelech found the goalie's five-hole with a deflection.

Ouzas, a Hamilton, Ontario, native is now 3-0-1 against Ontario this season, with a 1.75 goals-against average.

"I had to prove to the boys that I could come back for them," Ouzas said. "And they stepped up as well. It was a great all-around effort, and we needed that going into the break."

Three stars: 1. Shay Stephenson (goal); 2. Adam Miller (goal, assist); 3. Michael Ouzas (22 saves)

Heavy hitter: Frank, who stood up to Reign captain McEwan and floored him with a flurry of rights in front of the 4,792 in attendance.

Roster report: Center Francis Lemieux was recalled Friday to the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League. Lemieux had 10 points in 12 games with the Wranglers, including seven goals.

Next up: A weeklong break from action before hosting Ontario on Dec. 26

Final word: "It's positive, the win is," Mougenel said. "But it's still not where we want to be. We've been finding ways to lose as of late, but tonight we found a way to win."

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Wranglers lose in shootout to Ontario Reign

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Dec. 19, 2009 | 1:56 a.m.

Ontario, Calif. — The player dropped his stick, the goalie raised his glove and the game was over.

Sixty-five minutes and change of hard-hitting, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat hockey had just come to an end with the Ontario Reign winning, 3-2, and Las Vegas Wranglers defenseman Jason Krischuk couldn’t believe it.

“I messed up,” he said afterward. “I made a bad mistake.”

Moments earlier, Krischuk was the sixth man, called on to extend Friday night’s game against the Reign at Citizens Business Bank Arena.

After the two teams battled to a tie that neither overtime nor a regulation shootout could break, Ontario’s Shawn Germain found daylight above the left shoulder of Wranglers goalie Michael Ouzas.

The Reign had a one-goal shootout lead, and out came Krischuk to face Ontario net minder Curtis Darling.

He retrieved the puck at center ice, steadily skated in from Darling’s right, neared the crease and put on the brakes.

He had the goalie right where he wanted him — out of the net — as Darling sprawled from left to right, inching further and further away from the net as Krischuk stopped.

The net was open, and then it wasn’t, as Darling’s right foot nestled the left post and beat Krischuk’s wrist shot.

“In my head, I saw the empty net and thought I could just slide it in, and he made a kick save to stop it,” he said. “I should have buckled down a little bit more and lifted it.”

Darling responded to the 6,285 screaming fans with a fist pump, while Krischuk was left to linger in the corner, dropping his stick in disbelief.

The loss was the second straight in which the Wranglers (9-14-3) led by two goals in the third period.

“We’re obviously not finding ways to win but finding ways to lose right now, and that’s a problem,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said.

“I had the wrong players on the ice,” he said. “I’ll take the fault for that. I put some of my guys with the most experience out there and they didn’t answer the bell.”

For the fifth consecutive game, the Wranglers opened the scoring, this night on Jeff Hazelwood’s first goal of the season at the 9:38 mark of the second period.

The goal was the only hint of offense in a rough and physical first two periods of play that saw both teams combine to go 0-9 on the power play while racking up 48 penalty minutes, including six fighting majors.

Late in the second period, Wranglers left-winger Mick Lawrence got tangled up with Ontario’s Jon Francisco. The two went at it and Francisco was left on the ice with a trail of blood.

“I hope that the guys understand that we haven’t had a fight in 15 games,” Mougenel said. “To me, when you battle night after night, I can’t even comprehend that.”

The fight ignited both benches, which were jawing at one another until the ensuing face-off.

Seconds after play resumed, Wranglers defenseman John Schwartz mixed things up with Mike Egener.

Those two fights — including one in the first period — put an exclamation point on the physicality of the game.

“It was a very physical game,” Las Vegas center Chris Nieszner said. “We’re trying to go out there and turn this around and that’s definitely going to be part of our way to do that.”

Early in the third period and on the power play, Ned Lukacevic deflected a point shot from Craig Switzer into the back of the net to extend the Wranglers lead to two.

But as they have done so often this season, the Reign responded by pelting Ouzas with shots.

“We’ve came back in a bunch of games this year and we’ve learned how to keep pushing forward,” Ontario head coach Karl Taylor said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

They missed wide left, wide right, hit posts and finally tallied a goal at the 8:01 mark. Francisco scored with assists from Egener and Andrew Martin.

While the offensive pressure continued, Ouzas remained up to the challenge before Ontario center Tim Kraus found Greg Hogeboom wide open in the slot for a one-timer that beat Ouzas blocker-side.

“Ouzas played great the whole game,” Mougenel said. “You couldn’t ask for more from him tonight.”

Hogeboom’s goal came with 3:14 remaining in the third period, and neither team mustered any more offense in regulation or overtime, sending the contest to a shootout.

Lukacevic gave the Wranglers an early lead in the shootout’s second round, but the lead was erased when Ontario’s Chad Starling scored in the fourth round.

Jon Landry added a goal on the Reign’s next try to take the lead, but defenseman Robbie Bina responded with a five-hole goal to keep Las Vegas alive.

Germain followed Bina’s tally with a goal of his own, and the three straight Reign goals sunk the Wranglers for their fourth loss in a row.

“We played well and it’s a point on the road, but we get another shot at them tomorrow night where we’ll be ready to answer the bell,” Mougenel said. “I don’t think they respect us and I hope the guys take it to heart.”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wranglers look to put brakes on roller-coaster season

By Anthony Fenech

Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.

Fasten your seat belts, Wranglers fans.

It's mid-December, and the Las Vegas Wranglers can't seem to get off their early season roller coaster ride.

They've gone up and they've gone down, but a third of the way through the 2009 East Coast Hockey League campaign, the Wranglers sit at the bottom of the National Conference's Pacific Division.

"There isn't anything to lighten the mood right now," head coach Ryan Mougenel said. "That's not the answer. Winning is."

The Wranglers stay in the basement of the Pacific Division can be traced back to a seven-game losing streak that began Nov. 13 and lasted more than two weeks. It tied a streak in the 2004-05 season for the longest stretch without a win in the team's history.

Standing at 9-14-2 with 20 points, lowest in the ECHL, Las Vegas is a lucky bounce or two away from the .500 mark. But it is still miles away from preseason thoughts of how well it could do.

"Obviously, we're not living up to our expectations," Mougenel said. "Our guys need to look in the mirror and realize that talk is cheap, and I need to look in the mirror and take ownership of the situation.

"We need to realize that the only thing we can control is how hard we work."

After halting the losing streak Dec. 1 at home against the Victoria Salmon Kings with an overtime winner from Francis Lemieux, the Wranglers proceeded to sweep Victoria out of town.

They followed it up, however, with three consecutive losses to Victoria on the road.

"We were competing every night and sticking up for each other," goaltender Michael Ouzas said of the winning home stand against Victoria. "Guys were hitting, sticking to their roles and making things happen."

Then came the return trip to Victoria, which included a heart-breaking overtime loss on getaway day.

In last Saturday's series finale, the Wranglers entered the third period with a two-goal lead before the Salmon Kings snatched the lead with three unanswered goals in the final frame.

The Wranglers scored again, sending the game to overtime, but Olivier Latendresse's tally just 1:12 into the extra period sent Las Vegas home with a bad taste in their mouths.

"We make it easier on ourselves when we work hard," Ouzas said. "It's one of those things where we were playing well, working hard and I think we kind of took it a little bit for granted. Once we let off, then things suddenly get pretty tough on us."

Pretty tough is how practice has been this week leading up to a home-and-home split against the Ontario Reign this weekend.

"It's been hard and I wouldn't say it's been fun," Mougenel said. "That's the only way to describe it. I've been pleased with the work ethic.

"And how hard we work will translate to winning, and winning is the only thing I'm thinking about right now."

So far, Mougenel's first season hasn't seen as much winning as planned.

It's been a rebuilding year for the Wranglers, who returned only a handful of players from last season and have had five newcomers see significant playing time.

"I believe in our personnel," Mougenel said. "Some guys are battling through this and some guys are going the other way. These times will prove to be a great indicator of our players."

And as tough as times have been, the Wranglers are only one point out of a National Conference playoff spot and five points behind second-place Ontario, a team they are 2-0 against this season.

"I think it's great that we're going through this now opposed to later in the year," Ouzas said. "It gives our team a chance to build character."

He said the goalies take much of the responsibility.

"We're not a highly skilled team that can just go through the motions and put points on the board," he said. "So we need to be making the kind of saves that keeps our team in games. We haven't been making those saves and it needs to start happening."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Brazile wins seventh all-around rodeo title

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, Dec. 13, 2009 | 2:01 a.m.

There is a new king of cowboys.

Trevor Brazile is the 2009 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo champion and now seven-time All-Around World Champion Cowboy.

"Oh, man," a relieved Brazile said afterward. "The only day better than the 10th round is the day after the 10th round. It's been a tough week."

With the Saturday victory in front of 17,418 at Thomas & Mack Center, Brazile tied the record of the legendary Ty Murray, who also won seven all-around titles.

"We worked hard this year," Brazile said. "We were first and second in the money winners the past two years and we were coming in with some severe confidence."

Josh Peek of Pueblo, Colo., had the only chance to catch Brazile in the all-around standings during the final day, but was eliminated after the third event when he didn't place in a money position or finish in one of the top two spots.

"If there's a lesson for anybody out there," Brazile said, "it's that you can get set back really easily here. This is the quickest serving of humble pie you can get in any sport.

"There are guys out here battling and there's nothing that says the next year you can't get over the hump."

Bareback riding: Bobby Mote completed his comeback against Clint Cannon and captured his first gold buckle, scoring an 88.5 to Cannon's 79 in the tenth and final go-around.

"All year when you're training and driving in the middle of the night, you dream of having a Finals like this," Mote said. "But so do 14 other guys. To actually have it happen, I'm just thankful for the way things have worked out."

Mote ended his Finals strong, winning each of the last two go-rounds and finishing first in average points and total world earnings for 2009, with $310,219.

That total sets a single-season earnings record.

"Clint has held my feet to the fire all year," he said. "And it's helped me lift my game and perform better."

Steer wrestling: Canada's Lee Graves will remain on top of the steer wrestling world.

Graves, a Calgary Alberta native, won his second-straight NFR gold buckle, as he vaulted from third place to first with his final go-round of 3.5 seconds.

"This one means more," Graves said. "Because I appreciate it more. Last year, it was a long time coming and I prepared myself for it. This year, it was a longer road back."

His climb to first was aided when Luke Branquinho lost control of his steer's horns and had to chase it around the ring until his time was up.

"I kind of threw the steer out of my arms," Branquinho, a two-time world champion said. "The judge didn't think I got a hand on him. That's just part of the game."

Graves moved ahead of Branquinho in the total world earnings on the day.

Team roping: The Oklahoma pair of Nick Sartain and, in his first NFR appearance, heeler Kollin VonAhn won the gold buckle in team roping.

"We believed that we could do it and we did it," Sartain said.

Sartain and VonAhn, from Yukon and Durant, Okla., respectively, took both the total world earnings title and NFR average title with a fourth-place finish in the 10th go-around.

Earlier in the week, they split a first-place finish in the fifth go-around and finished once in second and once in third. The duo won a combined $372,210 on the season.

Saddle bronc riding: Cody DeMoss' non-time in the 10th go-around opened the door for Montana's Jesse Kruse to win a gold buckle in his first NFR appearance.

Kruse capitalized on that opportunity the way DeMoss hasn't been able to so far and took the world earnings title with $194,465.

"I couldn't ask for more than this," Kruse said. "It would have been great to come in here and have a nice Finals to say you made it here and come back and win it in the future, but I'd rather get it done this way the first time."

Kruse finished fourth in average points, three spots behind winner Shaun Stroh.

"I just stayed aggressive, stuck to the basics and rode the bulls as hard as I could," Kruse said.

DeMoss continues to come painfully close at the NFR. This year's runner-up performance marked the fourth time he has finished second in Las Vegas, joining 2004, 2005, 2006, as well as a third-place finish in 2007.

Tie-down roping: In addition to his seventh-straight all-around championship, Brazile captured his second tie-down roping world earnings title in the past three years.

"Calf roping went pretty well this year," he said. "I had a lead to protect and different strategies."

19-year-old Tuf Cooper, son of eight-time world champion and ProRodeo Hall of Famer Roy Cooper, finished first with an average of 84.50 per round.

Cooper was the 2008 PRCA Rookie of the Year.

Barrel racing: The all-time winningest cowgirl keeps on winning.

Sherri Cervi won the 2009 NFR average title by 0.05 seconds with a 10th go-around win in barrel racing.

Cervi, a two-time world champion, averaged a time of 13.90 in her 10 runs at the Thomas & Mack Center the past two weeks.

She was followed by Lindsay Sears and Brittany Pozzi in average Finals points and finished third in 2009 world earnings, one spot behind Sears.

"I thought I rode a great Finals," Sears said. "The conditions were tougher here than they ever have been."

Bull riding: J.W. Harris' lead in the world earnings was so high that he won his second straight world championship without riding a bull the entire NFR.

Harris was followed by Kanin Asay and Corey Navarre in world earnings.

Asay won the average title with a 434 point average, and Navarre finished in second place with 407.5 points.

Wranglers drop third straight game to Victoria

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, Dec. 13, 2009 | 2:01 a.m.

The only thing the Las Vegas Wranglers have been consistent at lately has been inconsistency.

Las Vegas keeps winning a few, then losing a few, taking a lead and then giving it away.

It was the same old story Saturday in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Victoria Salmon Kings at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, British Columbia.

For the third time in three games north of the border, the Wranglers held an early advantage.

For the third time in three games, they gave up that lead shortly thereafter and finished with one more tally in the loss column.

Olivier Latendresse scored his seventh goal of the season just 1:12 into overtime, giving the Salmon Kings a three-game sweep of the Wranglers on home ice and returning the favor from a week ago.

The third period proved to be Las Vegas' demise. Victoria scored three straight goals, destroying the lead the Wranglers had held for nearly the entire first two periods.

After putting to rest their recent power-play woes with a Chris Neizner goal late in the first period, the Wranglers gave the goal back on their very next power play when Victoria's Olivier Filion scored short-handed.

Just a minute after Victoria's equalizer, Wranglers forward Ryan Weston responded with his fifth goal in the past five games, connecting on a shot from line mates Francis Lemieux and Adam Miller.

Defenseman Robbie Bina continued the Las Vegas offensive surge with a goal just more than a minute after Weston's tally, giving the Wranglers a two-goal lead.

The lead would stand until the middle of the third period, when the Salmon Kings struck for three consecutive goals. Andy Brandt, Wes Goldie (who scored his fourth goal of series), and Chad Painchaud each scored once, erasing the Wranglers lead and taking one of their own.

Las Vegas forward Ned Lukacevic tied the contest just 39 seconds later on a goal assisted by captain Josh Prudden and Shay Stephenson, but the Wranglers were unable to squeak a goal past Victoria goalie David Shantz the rest of the game.

Shantz took over for Glenn Fisher in the second period after the former Wranglers goalie allowed three goals on 11 shots.

Las Vegas goalie Joel Gistedt stopped 35 of 40 Salmon Kings shots in his third start in four games.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

This isn't their first rodeo: Meet the people behind the NFR

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Dec. 12, 2009 | 2 a.m.

This isn't Binion Cervi's first rodeo.

Twenty-five years ago, the National Finals Rodeo came to Las Vegas. Cervi, then the barely one-year-old son of Mike Cervi — the man responsible for producing many of the largest rodeos in the country — tagged along his father for what would become an annual trip to the desert.

"I can't remember it," Cervi said, "But I was there and boy, have things changed since then."

Boy have they.

Once a wide-eyed youngster roaming the rodeo as his father worked, the 25-year-old Binion is now in charge of Cervi Championship Rodeo, one of the largest stock companies in rodeo history, and is attending his 25th consecutive rodeo in Las Vegas.

"Besides this weather," he said in a Southern drawl as he fought the wind outside of Thomas & Mack Center, "there is a lot more change. Consider that when we first came to Vegas, there were less than half the amount of stock contractors so that's a pretty drastic change."

His father, Mike, got into the rodeo business in 1966 and acquired the Cervi Championship Rodeo Company, previously owned by Harry Knight and Gene Autry, in 1973.

Five years ago, in 2004, Mike sold the business to Binion.

"My dad wanted it to be a family business like a lot of other people's are," Cervi said. "I grew up in it so it's nothing new to me."

Cervi owns the livestock that the cowboys compete on. For this year's Wrangler NFR Finals, they have brought seven horses, six bulls and 11 saddle horses.

The NFR only selects 100 animals in each event out of the 72 stock contractors that nominate livestock, and Cervis makes his selections from a herd of over 600 animals at their Colorado ranches.

"You're fortunate to get whatever you get," Cervi said. "That's why this event is so unique. There are stock contractors here from all across North America, and you have so many people pledging to participate."

From bulls to the booth

This isn't Randy Taylor's first rodeo, either.

The former bareback rider turned NFR announcer has been attending the prestigious event since the 1970's, when he was competing in his home state of Oklahoma before the rodeo moved to Las Vegas in 1985.

"The city of lights has taken rodeo to a different level," Taylor said. "The first year here, paychecks were triple than they were the year before and that was when you could tell the ball would get rolling."

Taylor used to earn his paychecks competing on bulls, now the Tulsa, Okla., native earns them by coloring the competition through words.

A graduate of the University of Wyoming, Taylor discovered his second calling one day next to the bull ring, years after a professor at Wyoming told him he should give broadcasting a shot.

"One day after my ride, I was icing my elbow and listening to the announcers on the radio," he said. "As a rider from Tulsa it frustrated me that Oklahoma got such little recognition."

And so the seeds of a career were planted.

Introduced at the first Las Vegas NFR in 1985, Taylor was introduced by fellow announcer Randy Corley, who said after introducing the rider, "You can take the finals out of Oklahoma, but you can't take Oklahoma out of the finals."

After riding Lonesome Me from Calgary, Taylor was a first-hand witness to a new era in rodeo.

"There's an old cowboy saying that they don't buck like we used to," Taylor said. "That saying is obsolete though because this past decade the biggest change has been the breeding programs for the bucking horses and bulls.

"They have really catapulted the depth and quality in the herds. The cowboys now are getting on horses that are unbelievable, that have excelled the caliber of athletes in horses and bulls."

That and, of course, the money have changed the classic event for good. This year, the NFR has a total purse of $5.75 million.

"That's a lot of money," Taylor said. "Maybe not for a football player, but for us, that's a ranch right there."

From star to teacher

Nor is it Gary Leffew's first rodeo.

No, Leffew has eaten, drank and slept the rodeo for more than 40 years. He's a champion, a teacher and an actor, but above all, he's a cowboy.

"The great thing about this is you don't have a boss to report to and you only have to work eight seconds a day," Leffew said, his face still roughly — but perfectly — wrinkled.

"You work all year and you set aside a week or ten days for a celebration, and this is it," he said, smiling. "There's magic in the air, the energy is high and I was as hooked on that as I was riding bulls."

Leffew is a Santa Maria, Calif. Native who won the 1970 bull riding competition in Oklahoma. His success on bulls has translated into a teaching role, as he now heads the Leffew Bull Riding Academy.

"I've spent 40 years studying this game," he said, "And the biggest difference now is money. Lots of money. Today, the guys are a little more focused as sport-athletes. We were a little bit more into partying and fun back then."

Leffew grew up on Westerns and movies and saw the rodeo as a way of living the Wild West.

"You rode at the rodeo, went to the bar and a fight would always break out," he said. "No guns, no knives, just good old clean fighting. Looked like the movies."

With his long locks and signature cowboy hat, Leffew became one of rodeo's first true stars, appearing on commercials for all kinds of products, including American Airlines and Toyota.

"I had the same attitude in front of the camera as I did riding bulls," he said. "It's not what you look like in the face, but it's what you have radiating off of you. That's why they call it a star."

After his riding days, Leffew continued to be amassed by the rodeo and worked on tutoring young riders. His stature drew the attention of Hollywood, and soon he was teaching actors how to ride bulls, such as Luke Perry in "Eight Seconds" and Cliff Robertson in "J.W. Coop."

"Most of what I teach is mental," Leffew said. "The first rodeo I went to, after 30 days of visualization I was one point off the all-time record and finished runner-up to the greatest bull rider that ever lived, George Paul.

"My big successes came after I got into positive thinking and started to learn how to program my mind with the end result of pictures and feelings of how I wanted to perform," he said. "The same holds true with actors. That's how they act, they get into character."

He said the Wild West he once rode in is disappearing by the day.

"This is the most fun and free lifestyle that I can think of," he said. "But it's getting tougher all the time. I don't know if they had as much fun as we did. There was more romance, no vests, no helmets, but nowadays, anytime you're making that much money, you just ride to live another day."

Friday, December 11, 2009

Coach says no more excuses after Wranglers lose to Victoria

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, Dec. 11, 2009 | 11:37 p.m.

After dropping their second game in row to Victoria, the Las Vegas Wranglers need to get mentally tough and stop making excuses, head coach Ryan Mougenel said.

“We’re not a young team anymore,” Mougenel said following Friday’s 4-2 loss. “We’re two months into the season and there won’t be excuses any more.”

Twenty-five games into the season, the Wranglers are 9-15-1 and have the lowest team point total in the East Coast Hockey League.

At Friday’s road game against the Salmon Kings, Michael Ouzas stopped 22 of 26 shots. But the Wranglers couldn’t contain Victoria forward Wes Goldie, whose two goals proved to be the difference in the game.

After beating the Salmon Kings three straight games last week, the Wranglers have now dropped two in a row and face a split six-game series if they lose Saturday night.

“Our guys have to take ownership of this team,” Mougenel said. “It’s an important time for us, and we have to understand how to be mentally tough.”

For the second straight game, Las Vegas jumped to an early 1-0 lead, this time thanks to a Ryan Weston goal that extended his scoring streak to four games.

“We got off to a great start with a lot of pressure, scoring a goal that we needed to score,” Mougenel said.

Then, for the second straight game, Victoria responded.

First-period goals by Scott Howes and Goldie provided a lead the Salmon Kings would not relinquish.

“Ouzas wasn’t very sharp,” Mougenel said. “Our defense didn’t give up many really good chances, but they still scored and that was the difference.”

It was Ouzas' first game back after a two-week absence.

“I really wanted to get back out there, but I just wasn’t good enough tonight,” Ouzas said. “I was ready to go, but there were some saves that I had to make and I didn’t make those.”

Francis Lemieux scored his seventh goal of the year, a shorthanded tally at the 6:22 mark of the third period to pull the Wranglers within a goal. But it wasn’t enough as Goldie iced the game six minutes later.

With goals by Weston and Lemieux, both assisted by center Adam Miller and defenseman Robbie Bina, the line of Miller, Weston and Lemieux continued to provide the only offense for the Wranglers.

Power play woes continued as the team went 0 for 7 with the man advantage, falling to 0 for 13 in the series.

“The guys that will play on the power play are guys that will work hard,” Mougenel said. “There are going to be changes.”

The win was Victoria’s fourth straight at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in front of 3,471 fans as they unveiled an alternate jersey.

Bobby Mote takes first in bareback at National Finals Rodeo

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Dec. 12, 2009 | 10:33 p.m.

Bobby Mote had a routine Friday.

On the ninth day of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center, Mote battled a familiar foe as he rode a familiar horse to a familiar finish, picking up his second win of the NFR, this time in the bareback-riding event.

It was Mote’s second outright win of the NFR and sets up a two-man battle for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association World Championship on Saturday.

“I need to ride the same way tomorrow as I did tonight,” Mote said. “Get a good spur out, lift up my rig and turn in a good ride. It doesn’t make press, but it wins bareback riding.”

Mote rode Calgary Stampede’s Coconut Roll to an 86.5 score and could not have been happier with his stock draw.

“She is the epitome of a winner,” Mote said of the horse. “There are a few horses that are winners, that when you need them to show up, they raise their game. She’s one of them.”

Mote said he has ridden Coconut Roll five times previously and estimated he has won close to $90,000 on the horse.

“That’s been an amazing horse for us,” he said.

Mote’s victory pulled him within $18,000 of PRCA world money leader Clint Cannon, who has had a rocky week at the NFR, sitting in 10th place in the average with 645.5 points.

“He’s had a tough go at it this week, but his attitude hasn’t changed,” Mote said of Cannon. “He’ll be back. Don’t count him out.”

Mote and Cannon are friends outside of the ring and the 27-year-old Mote, who leads the NFR bareback riders in finals money earned and the average, said Cannon helped him get to this point.

“I’ve gotten to know and appreciate him more than ever this year,” Mote said. “He’s lifted the bar and forced me to be on top of my game every time I nod my head. I’m really thankful to him for that.”

That Mote is within striking distance of the 2009 world earnings title is an unfamiliar feeling to the Oregon native. He said it was tough trying to stay within $70,000 of Cannon.

“He’s been riding great everywhere he’s went and it’s been a real chore to keep up with him,” Mote said.

Mote is followed in the bareback riding event by Jason Havens and Kaycee Field, with averages of 743 and 741 points, respectively.

Double take: Friday night’s fireworks took place in the Team Roping event, as the previous world record was broken twice in the span of six riders.

The tandem of JoJo Lemond and Random Adams were the first to break the record with a time of 3.40 seconds.

Chad Masters and Jake Corkill responded minutes later with a score of 3.30 seconds.

“It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have time to think about it,” Masters said. “After watching the 3.4, I thought I had seen the best round in my life.”

Masters, the duo’s header — the cowboy who ropes the steer’s horns — almost was too quick to hook the steer.

“I was a little nervous when I hadn’t even picked up my rope and he had him caught,” Corkill said. “I had no choice but to throw the rope. My horse did a great job of putting me in perfect position and it turned out well.

“It was do or die for us right there.”

Both teams featured Nevada ties.

Corkill is from Fallon, and Adams is from Logandale.

Lemond and Adams sit in fourth place in average points heading into the final go-around, while Masters and Corkill are in eighth.

Costly victory: Cody Hancock’s victory Friday in the bull-riding event didn’t come easily.

After riding Balistic to a first-place finish with 89.5 points, Hancock was bucked into the right horn of the bull and knocked to the ground unconscious. He was motionless for minutes as the medical staff attended to him.

Hancock was carried off on a backboard but regained consciousness and was responsive as he headed to the hospital.

Back-to-back: J.W. Harris locked up his second straight PRCA World Championship Friday night. Harris, a 24-year-old rider from May, Texas, is 0-4 on bulls this NFR, also missing four rounds with injury.

Wranglers drop opener in three-game series against Victoria

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, Dec. 11, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.

The second period wasn’t friendly to the Las Vegas Wranglers on Thursday night.

After scoring on its first shift of the game and holding the lead twice, Las Vegas gave up two Victoria goals — one on a defensive miscue ̵ in the second period, spelling a 4-2 defeat in the opener of a three-game road series in Victoria, British Columbia.

“We weren’t as detailed as them tonight,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “We played well but we have to play better.”

Francis Lemieux scored 22 seconds into the game to give the Wranglers an early 1-0 lead, but the Salmon Kings responded with a power-play goal by Chad Painchaud just more than a minute later.

After Ryan Weston’s fourth goal of the season gave the Wranglers a 2-1 lead at the 6:54 mark of the second period, Victoria scored two unanswered goals, the second coming with help from a Wranglers turnover in their own zone.

“We were faced with those scenarios a handful of times earlier in the game and played it to perfection,” he said. “We’ve defended that 10,000 times in practice and the one time we don’t, the puck is in the back of the net.”

Victoria’s Wes Goldie scored the game-winning goal on the play.

“I’m done teaching,” Mougenel said. “It’s all about results now.”

Las Vegas center Adam Miller recorded an assist, extending his points streak to four games, and goalie Joel Gistedt stopped 30 of 34 shots in his second consecutive game.

“Joel played his heart out in goal tonight,” forward Ryan Weston said. “We didn’t help him out in the goals department tonight.”

“We had some blown coverage on defense and we need to shore that up.”

The Wranglers were 0-6 on the power play and allowed two Victoria power-play goals. Twice they were whistled for penalties while on the power play.

“We had good opportunities to score,” Weston said. “Hopefully we can get that offense next time.”

The loss snaps a three-game winning streak for the third-place Wranglers.

“It was a good first period but we let down in the second,” Weston said. “That cost us the game.”

Goaltender Michael Ouzas has returned to the team from the bereavement list, but Mougenel said he’s questionable to play tomorrow.

“I like the way Joel is playing,” he said of Gistedt. “He played great. Our guys didn’t respond to his performance tonight.”

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Del Sol players savor experience of championship game

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Dec. 5, 2009 | 5:51 p.m.

So close, yet so far away.

There was Del Sol High senior linebacker Curt Pfeiffer, face down on the Sam Boyd Stadium turf with his arms outstretched after lunging for an interception.

The ball had fallen just inches short of Pfeiffer’s grip, but had the senior never hustled to corral the tipped ball, he would have never had the opportunity to make the play.

“Two inches from my hand,” Pfeiffer said, holding up two fingers. “Two inches.”

It was late in the first half of Saturday afternoon’s large-school state championship game and the Dragons were trailing Bishop Gorman by 38 points.

They would end up falling 62-21 to the Gaels. At the time, for all intents and purposes, the game was over.

But Del Sol’s heart kept beating to the same beat it had throughout their 12-2 season, a season where hard work and heart afforded them the opportunity to play in the pinnacle game of the season.

“We came out in the second half and played better,” Pfeiffer said. “The score says we didn’t play good enough, but we’re No. 1 in our eyes.”

The Sunrise Division champions willed their way through the playoffs, breezing by Valley and answering Liberty's challenges on their home field before finding themselves stuck in a halftime rut just a week ago.

Trailing Basic by 12 points with star running back and soon-to-be Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year Dezerick Reed hobbled with an injured ankle, the Dragons checked their halftime gut at the locker room door, defeating Basic 20-19 for the Sunrise title.

“That’s who we are,” Del Sol coach Preston Goroff said. “We might be overmatched or we might have our back against the wall, but we’re not going to quit.”

And so time ticked off of Saturday afternoon’s scoreboard at Sam Boyd Stadium, Bishop Gorman leading by 38 at halftime, 45 in the third quarter and 52 in the fourth, never leaving any doubt as to whose game it was.

All the while, the Del Sol heart kept beating.

An Ashton Cacho 42-yard touchdown here and an Evan Weinstock nine-yard touchdown there, both in the fourth quarter, made sure that the Dragons wouldn’t fade away easily.

“The guys in the locker room have nothing but heart,” senior safety Curt Pfeiffersaid. “They play their butts off every week and I’m just honored to have been able to play with them.”

As time dwindled off of the fourth quarter clock, there was Doph, flying through the Bishop Gorman line and laying a body-slam on Gaels rusher Jordan Welte.

“I was a little frustrated, so I tried to time the snap and hit him as hard as I could,” Doph said. “My last game here, finally on a nice field against that team, I had to.”

After the hit, Doph rose to his feet and waved his hands, urging the Dragons faithful to make noise. Most of his defensive teammates joined him and soon after that, the Del Sol crowd was on its feet.

It was a championship moment on the other side of a championship game.

“It was a great game,” Doph said. “Yeah, we lost, but it was amazing out there.”

Doph, whose timing was just a smidgen late on the hit, was flagged for unnecessary roughness.

So close, yet so far away.

Afterward, there was Goroff, the leader of the Dragons, with a runner-up plaque resting in his right hand, searching for words to describe the season.

The sunglasses he wore tried to hide the emotion.

He spoke proudly of his team, excitedly about the future, and with a hint of disappointment over the loss.

“We were overachievers,” Goroff said. “Nobody expected us to be anything this year, no playoffs or anything, and we won our division, conference and played in the state championship game.

“They’re a great group of kids and I’m going to miss them a lot.”

For the Del Sol Dragons, their 2009 season ended by being so close, yet so far away.

Wranglers beat Victoria 2-1 for three-game sweep

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Dec. 5, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.

Oh, how a week can change things.

Heading into this week, the Las Vegas Wranglers were down.

Losers of seven consecutive games, they sat in the basement of the ECHL National Conference Pacific Division without an offense, a goalie or confidence.

Three victories later, the Wranglers are up.

Friday night at the Orleans Arena, they completed a series sweep of the Victoria Salmon Kings with a 2-1 win, thanks to a scoring line that’s gelled, stellar goaltending and the return of their confidence.

“It’s important that we learned a lot when we went through that losing time,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “And we did. This series proves that.”

For the second time in the series, Francis Lemieux found a way to put the game-winning goal in the net, this time scoring with just over five minutes to play in the game.

“I was kind of late on the play,” Lemieux said. “I was trying to back check, and then I saw the puck coming my way.”

Lemieux corralled the puck near center ice and, as the defense closed in on him, spotted line mate Adam Miller to his left, streaking across the blue line.

He fed Miller a saucer pass, which the center clanked off of the left post. Keeping a close trail on the play, the puck crawled through the crease, onto Lemieux’s stick and into the wide-open net for a goal.

“It was kind of lucky because I wasn’t at a good angle,” he said. “But it got in there and we got the win, so I’ll take it.”

The goal was Lemieux’s third of the three-game set, to go along with two assists.

“We’ve scored some goals and that’s what we’ve been struggling with,” he said. “It was a tough game and when the game was on the line in the third period, we stepped up.”

Both Lemieux and Miller had their hand in the first goal of the contest, assisting on Ryan Weston’s early second-period goal.

Miller’s two assists extended a two-game point streak as he continues to lead the Wranglers in points with 27. He anchors the scoring line with Weston and Lemieux.

“That’s a real good line. Offensively, they’re great,” Mougenel said. “They have their defensive deficiencies but, overall, they played an impressive series.”

Earning the win in goal for the Wranglers (9-12-1) was Joel Gistedt, who early this season has served primarily as Michael Ouzas’ backup.

Gistedt stopped 25 of Victoria’s 26 shots and made a number of key saves down the stretch, including a flurry in the final minute of the game as the Salmon Kings worked a 6-on-4 power play with their goalie pulled.

“It’s just so much fun to get out there and play,” he said. “We had some great defense out there tonight, and I saw pretty much every shot they took.”

After struggling early in the year, Gistedt, a second-round draft pick of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2007, impressed Mougenel with his performance.

“He made the stops that he needed to make,” Mougenel said. “It was nice to see Joel come back and play what to me was an extremely great game. I was real happy for him.”

Victoria (6-13-2) tied the game late in the second period on Tim Wedderburn’s slap shot from the right circle that beat Gistedt top-shelf blocker side. It was the only blemish on his stat sheet Friday night.

Stars of the game: 1. Francis Lemieux (Goal, assist); 2. Ryan Weston (Goal); 3. Joel Gistedt (25 saves)

Heavy hitter: Weston, who introduced Victoria’s Patrick Coulombe to the boards midway through the third period. Coulombe misplayed the puck near his own blue line and Weston, with a head of steam, made him pay.

Take a breather: In light of the team’s recent performance and its Christmas party Saturday night, Mougenel decided to give the players a couple of days off.

Line on fire: The trio of Lemieux, Miller and Weston combined for eight goals and eight assists in the series against Victoria.

Up next: Victoria, on the road next weekend for three games, bringing the total to six games these two teams has played in a row.

Final word: “When you win, it breeds confidence,” Weston said.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Wranglers win two in a row against Victoria

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, Dec. 4, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.

Ryan Mougenel was hot.

He was nearly out of breath and nearly out of words, pacing and yelling, throwing a not-so-subtle right jab at the Plexiglas around his bench.

It was midway through the third period of Thursday night’s game against the Victoria Salmon Kings and the Las Vegas Wranglers head coach had just watched his team blow a two-goal, third-period lead.

Three straight Victoria goals had given the Salmon Kings a one-goal lead and suddenly, a game that looked like the second of a nice little two-game win streak for the Wranglers turned into a game that looked like a really big missed opportunity.

So Mougenel kept yelling and screaming. At the Wranglers bench. At defenseman Jason Krischuk. At himself. At nobody in particular.

And then Ned Lukacevic scored to tie the game.

Mougenel didn’t skip a beat behind that bench as he continued to pace and yell as if Lukacevic’s goal never happened.

And then Adam Miller scored to take the lead.

Mougenel stuck on his team, when they were on the ice and when they were off the ice, during timeouts and after whistles.

And then Miller hit an empty net as time ran out for his hat trick, and the Wranglers had beaten Victoria, 7-5, for their first winning streak since the first day of November.

Mougenel smiled and clapped.

“Let’s put it this way: I’m an extremely passionate guy,” he said. “I’m a fiery guy; that’s how I played, and I was hot at the time.

“But the guys know I care. They know I care about them as people and as players, and we were all hot at that time.”

Both teams were hot on the Orleans Arena’s cold ice during the third period of Thursday night’s game, when five goals were scored in the first 10 minutes.

The Wranglers scored and then the Salmon Kings scored. The Salmon Kings scored and then the Salmon Kings scored again.

Las Vegas finally finished with three unanswered goals, and the victory was theirs, the sixth straight time they have defeated Victoria.

“We didn’t come out too hot in the third period and they took the lead just like that,” Miller said. “We were up the whole game and then things just turned.

“We have a lot of character guys in this locker room though and we battled and got the two points.”

Miller finished the game with style, tallying the game-winning goal at the 9:44 mark of the third period on a deflection and icing the Wranglers win with an empty-net goal that drew hats from the stands and a laugh from teammate Mick Lawrence afterward.

“I saw Mick on the other side and he was going for the hat trick, too,” Miller said. “We’re good buddies on the team, so I’ll give him a hard time about that one.”

Lawrence scored twice in the game to bring his season total to seven, the latter of his two goals coming early in the third period.

The goal gave the Wranglers a 4-2 lead before Victoria stormed back.

Consecutive goals by Mike Hamilton, Randall Gelech and Patrick Coulombue put the Salmon Kings ahead with 12 minutes to play in the game.

Victoria’s lead wouldn’t last long, as Lukacevic scored only 38 seconds later to tie the game.

Wranglers goalie Billy Sauer won his second straight contest for the team, stopping 39 of 44 shots and, more importantly, a losing streak that has turned into a winning streak.

“It’s nice to win two in a row,” defenseman Shay Stephenson said. “It’s been a long time coming around here. We have a head of steam now and we’ll look to finish the weekend with three.”

Three Stars: 1. Adam Miller (3 goals, assist); 2. Mick Lawrence (2 goals); 3. Patrick Coulombue (2 goals)

Heavy hitter: Wranglers defenseman Chris Frank, for leveling Victoria’s Randall Gelech late in the second period and drawing a retaliating charging penalty on Gelech the next time down the ice.

Two and done: Billy Sauer’s short but solid performance in net earned him an 11 p.m. flight out of town to rejoin the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League. Said Sauer: “It’s been fun. I really like it here. It kind of sucks that I’m leaving, but I hope I get some more playing time, wherever it is.”

Special deliveries: The Wranglers jumped out to a 2-0 lead thanks to its special teams play. Ryan Weston’s game-opening goal came shorthanded and Miller followed with a power-play tally.

Up next: Victoria, Friday night, as the Wranglers go for the series sweep.

Final word: “I’m thinking of the first five minutes of the game tomorrow,” Mougenel said. “We need to build on this, so I’m not looking too far ahead.”

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Las Vegan has bull riding in his blood

By Anthony Fenech

Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.

Bull riding is in Colin McTaggart’s blood.

From an early age, he’s watched his grandfather ride bulls and watched his father ride bulls.

This weekend, they will be watching him in the 2009 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center as the third generation of McTaggart bull riders takes aim at a dream.

“To be able to win this rodeo would be unbelievable, with the prestige and payout it carries,” he said.

And to win it in front of his family?

“They’re the ones that got me started and built me up to where I am now,” he said. “So it would be a cherry on top. I definitely want to perform well in front of them.”

The 24-year-old McTaggart has been bull riding since his mid-teens. Two years after graduating from Liberty High School in Brentwood, Calif., he moved to Las Vegas, where he earned his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association card while attending classes at UNLV.

“It’s a time-sensitive job,” McTaggart said. “You can’t ride bulls forever. I just want to do this while my body holds up and have a backup plan after that.”

But McTaggart has taken a few semesters off from pursuing a marketing degree to focus on his bull riding.

This season, McTaggart is in fourth place in the Wrangler Tour Bull Riding standings and has won six events, including the prestigious Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon in September.

“Everybody wants to win that one at least once in their career, and I’m fortunate to have done it early,” he said. “It was an amazing experience.”

The 2009 NFR will be the third consecutive World Finals taht McTaggart has qualified for by placing in the top 15.

He said every time he competes on the best bulls in the world against the best bull riders, his confidence grows.

“The first time I qualified, I was in awe,” he said. “Now, going through it a couple of times, it’s gotten more familiar and I’m ready to go.”

While winning the 2009 NFR isn’t a mathematical possibility — thanks to a dominant season by J.W. Harris, who sits atop the Wrangler Bull Riding standings with 81,586 points and is 50,000 points ahead of McTaggart — he’s still hungry for the competition.

“I want to stay on as many bulls as I possibly can and more bulls than I did last year,” he said. “The more you stay on, the more respect you get and the more money you get.”

But he’s really looking forward to riding in front of his family. “They’ve supported me from the beginning,” he said of his father and grandfather. “And I don’t want to disappoint them.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Las Vegas Wranglers back in the win column

By Anthony Fenech

Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.

It took seven games, three road trips and one replacement goaltender, but an overtime deflection by Francis Lemieux gave the Wranglers a 4-3 victory over the Victoria Salmon Kings Tuesday night at the Orleans Arena.

“It feels awesome,” Lemieux said. “We just needed to find a way to score goals, and tonight we came back and got our offense going.”

With just more than two minutes remaining in overtime, as the Wranglers worked the final minute of a four-minute power-play, center Adam Miller wound up a slap shot from just outside the right circle.

Lemieux, who was camping just to the right of the Victoria net, nudged Miller’s shot just enough to evade Salmon Kings goalie David Shantz for the game-winner.

“I needed to find any way to get a stick on that puck,” Lemieux said. “We were just waiting for a good angle to shoot and I just waved my stick at it and towards the five-hole.”

The overtime victory was the first win for the team since Nov. 12, and up until the waning seconds of Tuesday’s night’s game, it looked as if the losing streak would reach eight.

With the recently acquired Billy Sauer on the bench for an extra attacker, Craig Switzer tallied Las Vegas’ game-tying goal with 13.5 seconds remaining on the clock. It was a slap shot from the point that found its way through traffic and into the net, forcing overtime.

Shortly into the overtime period, Miller drew a major high-sticking penalty on Victoria’s Gary Gladue, giving the Wranglers a man advantage for nearly the entire period, which culminated with Lemieux’s goal after a series of near misses.

“We’ll take the win,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “That’s called finding a way and being determined. I liked the character we showed. A lot of guys stepped up, and I think we’re turning the corner.”

Earning his first win for the Wranglers in the most crucial of times was Sauer, who was loaned by the Lake Erie Monsters of the American Hockey League.

“It was a little bit more pressure, but I didn’t look at it that way,” Sauer said. “It was my first game here and I hadn’t been playing a whole lot, so I just wanted to get on the ice.”

The former University of Michigan standout who stepped in for Michael Ouzas (bereavement leave), stopped 26 of 29 shots in the win.

“I was very impressed by a guy who just got acclimated to a new setting and his teammates,” Mougenel said, noting that he expects the team carry three goalies in the immediate future.

As they were accustomed to during the losing streak, the Wranglers fell behind early.

Trailing by two goals deep into the third period, left-winger Kyle Hagel scored a brilliant goal directly to the right of Shantz, seemingly putting a puck where no puck could go as his wrist shot snuck between the goalie and his post.

“I didn’t see anything,” Hagel said. “There wasn’t any room. I ...just kind of closed my eyes and fired it.”

Mougenel wasn’t surprised with Hagel’s goal.

“He’s been relentless,” Mougenel said. “He’s been working his tail off and it’s nice to see him get rewarded.”

It was the Wranglers sixth straight victory against Victoria and pushes the team’s record to 5-2-1 in one-goal games this season.

“There’s a lot of things I’m not happy about, and I think the guys in that room know it,” Mougenel said. “We can’t spot teams two or three goals and expect to come back, but our resiliency came into play today.”

Three Stars: 1. Francis Lemieux (2 goals); 2. Adam Miller (2 assists); 3. Craig Switzer (1 goal)

Heavy Hitter: Las Vegas right-winger Mick Lawrence, who was bowled into Salmon Kings goalie Shantz after taking an off-balance lunge at the puck. Shantz fell back into the goal, knocking it off the pegs and needed a breather from the trainer.

New Kids On The Block: Lemieux, who was called up on Nov. 9 from Grand Rapids and scored two goals, including the game-winner, and Sauer, called up Sunday from Lake Erie, who delivered the win.

Up Next: Victoria on Thursday and Friday nights at Orleans Arena.

Final Word: “We needed this win so bad,” Hagel said. “It’s good to see our hard work starting to pay off.”