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."

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