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."

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