Thursday, January 7, 2010

Wranglers defeat Ontario, climb out of last place

By Anthony Fenech

Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

ONTARIO, Calif. — These aren't last year's Las Vegas Wranglers, even if it is little more than a week into the new year.

Just ask the Ontario Reign.

The last time these two teams met Dec. 18 at Citizens Business Bank Arena, the Wranglers were in last place nursing a three-game losing streak and the Reign were in second place, winners of four of their last five games. Las Vegas fell, 3-2, in a shootout in that game.

But Wednesday night was a different story.

Propelled by two power-play goals just 90 seconds apart, the Wranglers defeated the Reign, 2-1, and finally relinquished their spot at the bottom of the ECHL National Conference's Pacific Division.

"We got ourselves out of the dead," head coach Ryan Mougenel said. "Now we need to get where we want to go."

Yes, the Wranglers are a winning team once again, eclipsing the .500 mark for the first time since Nov. 6 when they defeated the Bakersfield Condors and pushed their record to 5-4.

"I thought it was a good, hard-fought road victory," Mougenel said. "We kept it simple, played a good detailed game, and I liked how we found a way to win."

The victory was the team's sixth straight.

After a sluggish first period from both sides, Las Vegas wasted no time in making the most of their opportunities early in the second period.

For the 12th consecutive game, they struck first, with Ned Lukacevic's power-play goal at the 8:07 mark of the second period.

Leading an odd-man rush into the Ontario zone, Lukacevic skated in from the right of Reign goaltender Curtis Darling and saw linemate Mick Lawrence posted up just to the left of Darling's crease.

"I was really trying to pass it to Mick," Lukacevic said. "But the goalie got a stick on it and it slid in there.

"I'll take those for sure."

But the Wranglers weren't finished with their power-play prowess.

During Lukacevic's goal, which was assisted by defenseman Craig Switzer, Ontario's David Walker was whistled for hooking, leaving Las Vegas with another man-advantage.

And take advantage they did.

With just over a minute remaining on Walker's penalty, center Chris Neiszner deflected a Jason Krischuk slap shot from the point into the back of the goal for a 2-0 lead, the team's second goal in a span of 1 minute and 30 seconds.

"It was just a matter of trying to get my stick on the puck," said Neiszner, the Wranglers captain. "To be honest, I didn't even know it went in."

While Ontario responded with a goal from Robert Pearce later in the period, the damage was done.

"It's a game of ups and downs," Mougenel said. "When you have the momentum, you have to capitalize on the momentum, and the guys did an excellent job of recognizing that and executing."

Wranglers goalie Michael Ouzas turned in another stellar performance, stopping 26 of 27 shots and improving his record to 12-11 on the season.

"I think he was the difference," Mougenel said. "We gave them a lot of opportunities late and he was there to make the saves."

Ouzas has allowed only one goal in four of his past six games.

"Winning is contagious just like losing is," he said. "We were able to hold on tonight, and that's the sign of a good team."

With the loss, Ontario now falls into last place in the Pacific division and is winless in six tries against the Wranglers this season.

"I've always liked Vegas' team," Ontario head coach Karl Taylor said. "Even when their record was struggling, I thought they worked hard and competed hard.

"They have our number right now."

Three stars: 1. Chris Neiszner (game-winning goal); 2. Ontario's Robert Pearce (goal); 3. Ned Lukacevic (goal, assist)

Movin' on up: The victory puts the 15-14-2-1 Wranglers in second place in the Pacific Division, two points ahead of both Ontario the Stockton Thunder. Their six-game winning streak leads the ECHL.

Nasty Ned: Lukacevic has scored in each of the past three games to go along with two assists.

Oozing wins: With the victory, Ouzas now has a 5-0-1 record to go along with a 1.66 goals-against average against Ontario.

Up next: A two-game home series against Ontario on Friday and Saturday at the Orleans Arena.

Final word: "The confidence isn't because of the winning streak," said Mougenel. "It's because we're playing our system and it's working."

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