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."

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