Saturday, January 2, 2010

Wranglers jump to early lead, beat Grizzlies 4-1

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, Jan. 2, 2010 | 11:35 p.m.

Ryan Mougenel doesn’t always make New Year’s resolutions.

If he did this year, the Las Vegas Wranglers head coach said, “it would probably involve scoring more goals — and on the power play obviously.”

Saturday night, the Wranglers did just that, scoring three times in the opening period en route to a 4-1 victory over the Utah Grizzlies.

“I thought the guys played collectively well tonight,” Mougenel said. “That’s a really good team over there, and we battled hard for the win.”

The three goals were the most Las Vegas had scored in any first period this season, continuing into the new calendar year a streak of 10 consecutive games scoring the first goal.

“When you work hard, you create your own opportunities, and that’s what we did in that first period,” Mougenel said.

Mick Lawrence opened the scoring three minutes in while the Wranglers were on the power play. The goal by Lawrence, assisted by Adam Miller and Craig Switzer, was on a slap shot from the right of Utah goalie Beau Erickson.

“We definitely owed these guys,” Lawrence said. “It feels good, but it’s only one game.”

“When you do things right, your luck starts to change a little bit,” he said. “We’re heading in the right direction. We just need to keep sticking with it and working at it.”

The Wranglers scored again just five minutes later, when Ned Lukacevic found an open net after beating Erickson to the puck just in front of the Utah goal.

Before the goal, Jeff Hazelwood, who tallied two assists in the game, skated through the neutral zone and floated the puck into the Utah zone.

As the puck lost steam, dying just inside of the left circle, Lukacevic gained steam, retrieving the puck before a charging Erickson could poke it away. With Erickson out of the goal, Lukacevic netted his eighth goal of the season.

Las Vegas wouldn’t stop there, however, as Kyle Hagel scored the team’s third goal with three minutes and change left in the period.

Captain Chris Neizner assisted on the play, connecting with Hagel to the left of Erickson. After receiving the puck, Hagel, with his back to the goaltender, spun around and lifted a backhand past Erickson’s blocker and into the top shelf.

The goal was Hagel’s second in as many games, and the assist was Neizner’s tenth this season.

“I thought Neizner was especially great tonight,” Mougenel said. “That whole line really made the difference.”

The center was flanked by Hagel and Lawrence, both in the starting lineup and throughout the game.

Utah goalie Erickson was pulled after the first period in favor of Mitch O’Keefe, who, along with his teammates, has had the Wranglers’ number.

Entering the game, O’Keefe was 6-0 with a 1.85 career goals-against average when matched up with Las Vegas.

Saturday night, O’Keefe turned in two solid periods, but the Grizzlies offense didn’t have enough life to get back into the game.

Recently-awarded ECHL All-Star Robbie Bina scored his fifth goal of the season against O’Keefe with 6:57 left in the third period to ice the game.

Countering the Utah pair was Michael Ouzas, who stopped 28 of 29 Utah shots in his fourth consecutive victory.

“This one doesn’t mean anything unless we come back tomorrow,” Ouzas said. “It feels good but we play them again tomorrow. They’re going to come back better and we need to come back better as well.”

Las Vegas now owns a four-game winning streak and has vaulted eight points in the standings over the past two weeks.

Saturday’s win leaves the Wranglers with a record of 13-14-3 and just one point behind the Ontario Reign in the ECHL Pacific Division.

“This raises the bar for us,” left-winger Matt Kang said. “It’s a new year and we have new goals.”

Three stars: 1. Michael Ouzas (28 saves); 2. Jeff Hazelwood (2 assists); 3. Robbie Bina (goal)

Heavy hitter(s): Utah’s Lance Galbraith and A.J. Perry for colliding with one another late in the first period. As the play left their offensive zone, the two crossed and collided, each needing a stoppage in play to skate off the ice.

Mick of time: Mick Lawrence’s game-opening tally was his fourth in the past three games and 11th of the season, leading the team. “I think he’s made more of a commitment to play at both ends of the ice,” Mougenel said. “I have a ton of respect for the way he plays, and it was only a matter of time he started scoring goals like this.”

Injury update: Left-winger Shay Stephenson was scratched with a lower body injury. There is no timetable for his return.

Up next: Utah at 2:05 p.m. Sunday at the Orleans Arena.

Final word: “Everyone’s doing all of the little things that we need to do to win consistently,” Lawrence said. “We need to come out and shut them down again tomorrow.”

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