Monday, March 29, 2010

Stockton rallies after Wranglers grab early lead

By Anthony Fenech

Monday, March 29, 2010 | 12:26 a.m.

With a minute left in Sunday’s game, Stockton Thunder left-winger Matt Robinson finished a hat trick and finished the Wranglers.

Robinson’s goal, his second of the third period, completed the second three-goal comeback for Stockton in the game.

“We had every opportunity to win,” Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “Our guys did a great job responding and to have that turnover and lose that way, it’s tough.”

The Thunder now reclaim a one-point lead over the Wranglers in the National Conference points standings.

“I’m just proud of how we responded,” he said. “We came in here and got 3 out of 6 points. Was it 5 points? No, but we’re plugging away.”

Goals by Chris Neiszner, Alex Bourret and Greg Collins gave Las Vegas an early three-goal lead.

Neiszner’s game-opening goal came 1:18 into the game and Bourret’s tally was on the man-advantage, assisted by left-winger Mick Lawrence and defenseman Mike Madill.

Stockton’s Bryan Young scored at the 15:47 mark of the first period, but the Wranglers picked up in the second period the same as they did in the first, with defenseman Barry Goers scoring unassisted 21 seconds into the period.

Then, after a Wranglers goal was called back and Ryan Weston was slashed on a breakaway without a call, Stockton rallied for four consecutive goals, two each in the second and third periods.

Mougenel said he felt the momentum slip away but urged his team to fight through it.

“I watched it 15 times and I had trouble seeing it,” Mougenel said of an incidental goaltender’s interference call on a play. “I’m still puzzled about it, extremely.”

Down a goal after Robinson’s second goal with 6:38 left in the third period, Wranglers center Adam Miller scored to tie the game, his 32nd goal of the season assisted by Madill and defenseman Craig Switzer.

The lead was short-lived when Robinson scored with a minute on the clock for the win.

“We don’t blame officiating,” Mougenel said. “But sometimes there are factors you can’t control. It’s tough to lose in that kind of scenario when you feel helpless about things.”

With 72 points, the Wranglers are tied with the Victoria Salmon Kings for sixth place in the conference. Lurking two points behind are the Ontario Reign.

The Reign will visit the Orleans Arena next weekend to close out the regular season with a three-game series.

“We’re fired up as is,” Mougenel said. “We play well at home, we’re going to go and play our type of game and just work.”

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Wranglers beat Stockton, pull ahead in points standings

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, March 28, 2010 | 12:47 a.m.

For the second straight game, the Las Vegas Wranglers and Stockton Thunder were tied at two goals apiece late in the third period.

Friday night, the two teams skated to a regulation tie that stood until the Thunder won, 3-2, in a shootout.

Saturday night, Wranglers right-winger Alex Bourret decided three periods would be all Las Vegas needed to jump ahead of Stockton in the points standings.

With just under three minutes left on the clock, Bourret pushed the game-winning goal past Stockton’s Andrew Perugini, sealing a 3-2 Wranglers victory.

“For the last couple minutes, the guys were going to decide it,” Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “There weren’t any penalty calls and the guys battled through it.”

“Bourret got a lucky bounce, but that’s what happens when you’re as skilled as him.”

The win comes a night after falling short in the shootout, dropping the Wranglers to a point behind Stockton. But Saturday night’s victory gives them 72 points, one ahead of Stockton.

“It’s a big two points,” Mougenel said. “But all of the points are big now for everybody. Our guys found a way, and that’s the bottom line.”

The Wranglers fell behind early, when Thunder right-winger Colin Hemingway scored 2:15 into the game for his 24th goal of the year.

But they responded ten minutes later with back-to-back goals from Mick Lawrence and Josh Prudden.

The pair of goals were scored 2:46 apart, and the Wranglers held the lead until the 15:55 mark of the second period when Matt Marquardt scored on the power play for Stockton, tying the game at 2.

The Wranglers out-shot Stockton by two, 29 to 27, and goaltender Jimmy Spratt stopped 25 of those shots for the victory.

Down a goal early, Spratt made a big save on Thunder right-winger Kelly Czuy, who was awarded a penalty shot 3:30 into the game.

“It was the right call,” Mougenel said. “Spratt made a huge save and he finds ways to win. The guys play really hard in front of him.”

“We’re playing playoff hockey right now,” he said. “Every win is important.”

Three stars: 1. Alex Bourret (game-winning goal); 2. Stockton’s Matt Marquardt (goal); 3. Stockton’s Colin Hemingway (goal).

Roster report: Mougenel said left-winger Ned Lukacevic will re-join the team for tomorrow’s series finale at Stockton. Lukacevic spent eight games with the AHL’s Providence Bruins, tallying two goals and four points.

Around the league: Ontario 4, Alaska 2; Utah 7, Bakersfield 4; Idaho 5, Victoria 1.

Points standings: 4th place, Utah (73 points); T-5th place, Las Vegas and Utah (72 points); 7th place, Stockton (71 points); 8th place, Ontario (70 points).

Up next: The rubber match of the three-game series between the two teams takes place at 4 p.m. Sunday.

Final word: “We need to get right back at it tomorrow,” Mougenel said.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Wranglers lose to Stockton, 3-2, in shootout

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, March 27, 2010 | 12:06 a.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers started their most important series of the year the same way they have finished the past month — by coming back.

Unfortunately, their comeback efforts were spoiled in a shootout, when Stockton’s Oren Eizenman beat Las Vegas goaltender Jimmy Spratt for a 3-2 victory.

Fortunately, the team’s third-period comeback erased what would have been a two-point swing in Stockton’s favor.

“I liked how we responded, but I didn’t like our start,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “That’s getting our legs underneath us after a nine-hour bus ride, but the way they came back was commendable.”

Heading into Friday night’s game, the two teams were tied in the National Conference points standings with 69 apiece. The shootout victory gives Stockton a one-point edge going into the middle game of a three-game series.

“Overall, I was happy with our play,” Mougenel said. “We worked hard to get it to a shootout, where anything can happen.”

The Wranglers fell behind 2-0 late in the second period after Thunder left-winger Igor Gongalsky scored his 14th goal of the year at the 15:05 mark, assisted by Garet Hunt.

Stockton’s James Bates opened the game with a goal 4:15 into the first period.

But Stockton’s two-goal lead wouldn’t last long, as Wranglers forward Greg Collins scored unassisted just 21 seconds later to cut the lead in half.

“He made a great play to get to the net,” Mougenel said. “It was big. He’s an energy guy and did great for us both ways tonight.”

After a scoreless start to the third period, Wranglers captain Chris Neiszner netted his 14th goal of the season, with 6:25 left on the clock.

The game-tying goal, Las Vegas’ second past Stockton goaltender Andrew Perugini on 21 shots, was assisted by Andrew Orpik and John Schwarz.

The teams skated to a 2-2 tie after the overtime period, where the teams combined for three shots.

Orpik, Jerry Pollastrone and Alex Bourret all came up blank in the shootout, while Stockton’s Kelly Czuy, Matt Marquardt and Eizenman scored successive goals past Jimmy Spratt for the 3-0 shootout advantage and the victory.

“[Jimmy] battled really well,” Mougenel said. “Obviously he wants to get those saves back, those breakaways go 50/50, but I was happy with his play.”

Spratt stopped 34 of 36 shots in the loss and both teams combined to go 0-15 on the power play.

Las Vegas was unsuccessful in seven opportunities.

“Both power plays struggled tonight,” Mougenel said, noting the ice conditions at Stockton Arena. “I thought some of it had to do with the ice, but we’ll get back out there tomorrow.”

Around the league: Alaska 2, Ontario 1; Bakersfield 5, Utah 4; Victoria 1, Idaho 0.

Points standings: 4th place, Victoria (72 points); T-5th place, Stockton and Utah (71); 7th place, Las Vegas (70).

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wranglers in battle for spot in playoffs

By Anthony Fenech

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 | 2:42 a.m.

March Madness has hit the ice.

As the ECHL regular season winds down, seven National Conference teams find themselves fighting for six playoff spots.

They are all within five points of one another. But the math is simple: One team is going home.

“We need to be really focused, and we need to be ready to go,” Wranglers captain Chris Neiszner said. “We’ve been talking about it from Day 1. You want to play your best hockey going into the playoffs.

“We want to continue that.”

To get to where they want to be, Las Vegas will have to continue playing at a high level, beginning on Wednesday when they travel to Stockton to battle the Thunder for a three-game series.

The two Pacific Division foes are tied for fifth place in the conference with 69 points apiece and have played only three times this season. The Wranglers won two out of three during a series a month ago at the Orleans Arena.

Both teams have nearly identical records, though Stockton has played one less game and has one less win.

They are jockeying for playoff position by chasing two teams from the West Division — Alaska and Victoria — while being chased by two other teams, Ontario and Utah.

Alaska and Victoria have 70 points apiece, while Ontario and Utah have 68 points.

“Every series keeps escalating,” Neiszner said. “They will keep escalating until the end of the year and that’s what we want.”

The intensity has increased since the stretch run began earlier in the month with a hard-fought series win in Ontario and expects to increase even more heading into a season-ending home series against the Reign next weekend.

After leaving Ontario the first week of March, neither the Wranglers nor the rest of their conference competitors have wilted, creating a tighter playoff race later in the season, something the Wranglers have been accustomed to.

For much of the past two months, the team has steadily made up ground in the race. The Wranglers have been playing with a playoff mentality, which has paid off with a 13-9 record since Feb. 1.

“We sure hope it helps,” Neiszner said of already playing playoff-style hockey. “That’s been our mindset, and this team is no different than any team I’ve ever played on. Everything is more important now.”

Neiszner knows a thing or two about playoff races going down to the wire. He has been a part of two Wranglers teams that finished back-to-back seasons as the No. 1 seed and runner-up in the conference, only separated by a point each time.

In 2006, the Wranglers finished a point behind Alaska and just a year later orchestrated a 13-game win streak to end the season and squeak a one-point regular-season points title over the Aces.

“At this point in the season, you realize, with six games left, that you can shrink it down period by period,” he said. “One period can translate into one game if we can stay focused and take care of business.”

And the fourth-year Wranglers player, now captain, hopes his experiences can rub off on his younger teammates who haven’t taken part in a professional playoff race.

“The game of hockey is funny,” he said. “You play 72 games a year or more and it seems like every little experience you look back on.”

He said he’s talked to some of his teammates, stressing the importance of playing at a “playoff level.”

“It’s taken over,” he said. “The speed of the game is faster, the physicality tougher and that makes the games that much more competitive.”

“You’ve got to be ready and know how important it is.”

Roster report: The Wranglers announced Tuesday that they signed defenseman Barry Goers to a standard player contract. Goers is 23 years old and joins the team after playing for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Aces pick up second straight win over Wranglers

Alaska’s Ryan Turek scores winning goal in 3-2 victory over Las Vegas

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, March 21, 2010 | 12:33 a.m.

Alaska defenseman Ryan Turek’s goal with 11:20 remaining in the third period Saturday night gave the Aces their second straight win over the Las Vegas Wranglers.

Despite mounting another two-goal comeback, Turek’s goal past Jimmy Spratt vaulted Alaska past the Wranglers in the National Conference points standings with a 3-2 victory.

The Aces scored a goal in each of the first two periods to take a two-goal lead into the third period.

Judd Blackwater opened the game with a shorthanded goal, his 11th of the season, followed by an Anthony Peluso tally for the lead.

Las Vegas (31-28-7) scored early in the third period with a power-play goal by defenseman John Schwarz just 1:49 into the period, assisted by Mick Lawrence and Alex Bourret.

Just under four minutes later, Bourret tallied a goal of his own, his 16th of the season, assisted by Mike Madill and Adam Miller. With the assist, Miller extended his points-streak to a team-record 14th game.

Jimmy Spratt stopped 22 of 25 shots.

The Wranglers are now tied for fifth place in the conference with 69 points, equaling that of the Stockton Thunder. They resume play next Wednesday in Ontario.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Wranglers come from behind but fall short against Aces

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, March 20, 2010 | 12:24 a.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers played another come-from-behind game Friday night, but fell just short in a 3-2 loss to the Alaska Aces.

“It’s a tough way to lose,” Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “For the most part, we dictated the play. We had enough opportunities to win the game and we didn’t.”

“We missed assignments, and it’s unacceptable,” he said.

Bryan Miller’s wrist shot with 37.7 seconds left on the clock beat Joel Gistedt glove-side to break Las Vegas’ five-game win streak and draws Alaska even with the Wranglers in the National Conference points race.

“When we’re that close, we need to squeeze, because every point is that big,” defenseman Mike Madill said. “Just to have forced overtime to get that extra one would have been great.”

Miller’s goal came seconds after it appeared the Wranglers scored on the opposite end of the ice.

The game-winning tally came four minutes after Las Vegas staged yet another comeback, as Madill’s slap shot from the point beat Alaska goaltender Scott Reid to tie the game at two.

“There were some things open and I just let it go; got kind of lucky there,” Madill said.

The goal was assisted by Alex Bourret and Adam Miller and came with the man-advantage.

Trailing by a goal entering the third period, Alaska’s Tyson Marsh scored 6:04 into the period to give the Aces a two-goal lead and came on a 4-on-4, with one player from each team off the ice for matching roughing minors.

“I hated our start,” Mougenel said. “I thought we were lackadaisical and a little complacent off the hop, but I’d like to see us get after it right off the hop.”

Alaska left-winger Jarrett Konkle opened the game three shifts in with his 13th goal of the season to put the Wranglers in an early hole.

Five minutes after Marsh’s goal, Bourret scored his 15th goal of the year at the 11:04 mark of the third to cut the Alaska lead in half. He was assisted by Miller and Krischuk.

“Today everyone played a lot tighter,” Madill said. “I think we were trying to make fewer mistakes. We just have to get back at them tomorrow and try to get four [points] for the weekend.”

Gistedt made his first start in ten days and stopped 21 of 24 Alaska shots.

“He made some big saves at times,” Mougenel said. “You can’t fault Joel on that last shot. Was it saveable? It could have been.”

His counterpart, Reid, stopped 33 of 35 and was twice involved in goal-scoring interference plays.

In the second period, a Jeff Hazelwood goal was called back when center Josh Prudden was called for goaltender interference, and after Madill’s game-tying goal in the third period, Reid was enraged that no call was made.

“I do think it should have counted,” Mougenel said. “But that’s a judgment call by the referee.”

“I was disappointed, but it’s one of those things,” he said. “You create your own opportunities, and it just didn’t go our way tonight.”

Three stars: 1. Alaska’s Bryan Miller (game-winning goal); 2. Mike Madill (goal); 3. Alex Bourret (goal, assist).

Ouzas update: Goaltender Michael Ouzas is still nursing a high-ankle sprain. He remains on the three-day injured reserve.

Strong streak: Las Vegas’ Miller had two assists, pushing his points-streak to 13 games.

Attendance report: Friday night’s paid attendance of 5,057 was the fourth-highest of the season.

Up next: The rubber match of the three-game series takes place at 7:05 p.m. Saturday at the Orleans Arena.

Final word: “It will sting for a little bit,” Mougenel said. “But then it’s on to our task tomorrow.”

Friday, March 19, 2010

Wranglers erase three-goal deficit, top Aces

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, March 19, 2010 | 9:31 a.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers never led the Alaska Aces during regulation on Thursday night.

Trailing for over 50 minutes and falling behind three goals on three separate occasions, the Wranglers were caught in a game of catch-up.

But with only minutes remaining in the third period, Las Vegas did catch up, and just a minute into the overtime period, Craig Switzer scored to give the Wranglers an 8-7 win at the Orleans Arena.

“We kept believing,” Switzer said. “We felt they were getting kind of tired and we just made some good plays, got some good shots and the win.”

Switzer’s goal capped yet another third-period comeback for the Wranglers, prolonging their five-game win streak as they continue to move up the National Conference ladder.

“I don’t know what to say other than the guys found a way,” Mougenel said. “I’m ecstatic about the two points but we need to rectify some things.”

Early on, the prospects of a fifth consecutive win looked bleak, as the Aces chased starting goaltender Jimmy Spratt halfway through the first period, Spratt allowed three goals on his first seven shots.

Joel Gistedt relieved Spratt and late in the period, and consecutive goals by Alex Bourret and Mike Madill drew the Wranglers within one goal.

But after a second period that saw Alaska push four goals past Gistedt, once again distancing themselves by three, the Wranglers needn’t look any further than their captain for the boost they needed.

Neiszner set the third period pace with a goal just 45 seconds into the period, assisted by Greg Collins and Jason Krischuk.

“He put the team on his back,” Mougenel said. “He was an absolute warrior out there and that’s who Chris Neiszner is.”

Then it was time for the ECHL Player of the Week — center Adam Miller — to bail out the ECHL Goalie of the Week — Spratt.

Miller connected on two consecutive goals, from Krischuk and Bourret and Mick Lawrence and Chris Frank, respectively, to tie the game.

Miller’s goal, his 31st of the season, came at the 3:58 mark of the period, on a deflection after Lawrence shuffled the puck to the net.

“Anytime Miller’s out there you know he’s going to make a play,” said Switzer.

Switzer then found the five-hole of Aces’ goalie Scott Reid for the game-winner early in the overtime period.

“Guys give him a lot of attention,” Switzer said. “He snuck down the side and found me and you have to score those goals.”

The 15 combined goals were the most in any single Wranglers game this season.

“I’m not happy with how we played, obviously,” Mougenel said.

Alaska, who now sits four points behind the Wranglers in the National Conference playoff picture, scored four power-play goals in the contest, but it wasn’t enough, as Reid allowed eight goals on 33 shots.

“We’re going to watch a lot of video tonight and we have a lot of work ahead of us,” Mougenel said. “We’ll try to rectify some of those first two periods, because they were the worst we’ve played all season.”

Two Wranglers posted milestones in the contest, with Miller breaking Chris Kenady’s record by tallying a point in 12 straight games.

He finished with two goals and two assists.

Neiszner also moved past Tyler Mosienko into first place on the Wranglers all-time scoring list on a second period goal from Krischuk.

Krischuk had three assists in the game and Gistedt stopped 17 of 21 shots in relief of Spratt.

“Joel didn’t get a lot of work in the third,” Mougenel said, “But he made some amazing saves. It was about a collective effort in the third.”

Three stars

1. Chris Neiszner (Two goals); 2. Alaska’s Bryan Miller (Hat trick, assist); 3. Craig Switzer (Game-winning goal)

Hat trick

Alaska’s Miller recorded a hat trick in the victory, scoring the game-opening goal and adding two goals in the second period.

Roster report

Forward Andrew Orpik returned from AHL San Antonio with a plus-one rating and Tomas Petruska, signed last week to an amateur tryout agreement, was released.

Behind the bench

Wranglers Special Assistant to the General Manager Keith Primeau watched Thursday night’s game from behind the bench and plans to stay throughout the weekend.

Final word

“You never want to give seven goals up,” Switzer said. “But it’s a testament to our offense.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Commission OKs license for Francois Botha to fight Evander Holyfield

By Anthony Fenech

Wednesday, March 17, 2010 | 4:46 p.m.

The Nevada State Athletic Commission tentatively has approved a license for Francois Botha to fight Evander Holyfield on April 10 in Las Vegas.

The approval hinges on a urine test that Botha must pass upon his arrival to the United States.

"I'm looking forward to fighting a great legend in this beautiful city," Botha said in a teleconference Wednesday afternoon at the Grant Sawyer State Office Building.

Commissioners voiced concerns over Botha's drug-testing process in South Africa, where he currently resides, and conditionally approved the license to fight over the age of 35, pending a clean urine sample.

After a 1995 victory over Germany's Axel Schulz, Botha (47-4-3) tested positive for the steroid nandrolone. He was disciplined in Germany and by the New York State Athletic Commission.

"I admitted that I unknowingly had it in my system," he said of the positive test.

The fight is scheduled for April 10 at the Thomas & Mack Center, and on the line is the vacant WBF heavyweight belt.

Roy Jones Jr. (54-6-0) also was awarded a license to fight over the age of 35.

Doctors performed additional cardiac tests on Jones. He said there have been no difficulties.

"My training has been going spectacular," Jones said. "I'm feeling wonderful."

He is fighting Bernard Hopkins on April 3 at Mandalay Bay. He expects to arrive in Las Vegas on March 24.

Wranglers Jimmy Spratt named ECHL Goalie of the Week

By Anthony Fenech

Wednesday, March 17, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

On the night of Feb. 12, Jimmy Spratt sat in his Louisiana apartment, hanging out with a friend just hours after he watched from the bench as his Louisiana IceDogs teammates lost in overtime.

That same night, more than 1,500 miles away, Las Vegas Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel sat behind his desk at the Orleans Arena.

With one goalie in the AHL and another injured in that night’s game, Mougenel spoke of giving a young goaltender a big opportunity.

About midnight, Mougenel phoned the 24-year-old Spratt to have him join the team.

“I was pretty surprised,” he said. “It kind of caught me off-guard.”

Just over a month later, Spratt has been named the ECHL Goalie of the Week.

“It’s nice to get recognized,” Spratt said. “It feels good to get noticed like that, but individual successes always come from good team play.”

“It’s not possible to get recognized for this without the other 20 guys,” he said

Good team play is what the Wranglers have been bringing to the rink for the past month as they battle for a playoff spot in the tight National Conference.

Between the pipes for Las Vegas, Spratt has won six of eight games, posting a 2.59 goals-against average and a .928 save percentage.

But more than that, he has given the Wranglers stability at the most important position on the ice, with Michael Ouzas on crutches and Joel Gistedt frequently flip-flopping between leagues.

“He’s relished the opportunity,” Mougneel said. “He’s a competitor and sees what he has in front of him.”

On the night of Mougenel’s phone call, Spratt had a two-hour car ride and two flights in front of him.

“At that hour of the night, it was pretty hard to find someone to drive me,” he said.

And thus began a 15-hour journey from Louisiana to Bakersfield, where the Wranglers were set to play the Condors the next night.

“I scrambled to find a ride, and luckily someone did a good deed for me,” Spratt said of his friend driving him to New Orleans International Airport.

At the airport, Spratt’s flight to Phoenix was delayed, which in turn caused him to miss his flight from Phoenix to Bakersfield.

“I was more nervous about just getting to Bakersfield than playing,” he said.

Eventually, he did get to Bakersfield, just before the team arrived, and promptly shut out the Condors in his first game. He stopped all 31 shots in his ECHL debut.

“From a hockey standpoint, the travel might have been good,” he said. “I didn’t have time to think about the game, and I was just playing off of adrenaline.”

In the seven games since, Spratt has become a key cog in the wheel of a team that once was battling just to get into the playoffs and now has aspirations of home-ice advantage.

“He didn’t have time not to gel with us,” Mougenel said. “He jumped off of a plane, had a huge win for us, and he’s played well.”

After his four-year career at Bowling Green State University ended last winter, Spratt bounced around leagues early this season, He went from the IHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks to the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye, both destinations where he didn’t see any action, to the Southern Professional Hockey League, where he saw the ice for the first time with the Louisiana IceGators.

“Coming from a lower league meant absolutely nothing to me and nothing to the guys in the locker room,” said Mougenel. “And I think he has a chip on his shoulder because of that to prove that he’s a good goalie.”

When Ouzas returned from injury, Mougenel kept Spratt an arm’s length away. This past weekend, the move paid off as the goalie played an instrumental role in sweeping Bakersfield.

“My mindset has been that there’s three goalies here and you don’t know how much you’re going to play,” Spratt said. “Just keep doing the right thing and be ready for when you do get called in.”

A seventh-round pick of the Calgary Flames in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Spratt is closing in on his first professional playoff experience, but he’s not rushing to conclusions.

“We can’t get ahead of ourselves,” he said. “It’s a huge chance, and playoffs are the most exciting time of the year. Any hockey player will tell you that. But it’s a really tight race and we need to take it 20 minutes at a time.”

And for Jimmy Spratt, taking his career one step at a time has paid off.

Double trouble: For the second time this season, the Wranglers’ Adam Miller has been named ECHL Player of the Week.

The center scored 12 points in five games to help the Wranglers win four games this past week. His 11-game point streak has tied a team record. He is fifth in the league in scoring with 74 points (29 goals, 45 assists).

Miller has tallied a point in 19 of 20 games and has tallied two in 12 of those games.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Wranglers revving up as regular season winds down

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, March 14, 2010 | 11:12 p.m.

It took nearly five months, but the Las Vegas Wranglers are playing their best hockey of the season at the most opportune of times.

The Wranglers on Sunday once again power-played their way through the Bakersfield Condors for their fourth consecutive victory over the Pacific Division leaders, winning 6-3.

“We’re finding a way,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “Guys are playing hard together, the power play is clicking and it was a tough grind for these guys to play eight games in 10 days, but they did it.”

In those eight games, Las Vegas went 6-2 and gained nine points in the National Conference standings.

“I think we’re playing our best hockey but not only that, learning a lot,” Mougenel said. “We’re still finding our identity as a team but we’re finding a way.”

Center Adam Miller and defenseman Craig Switzer combined for five of the six Wranglers goals, Miller recording a hat trick and Switzer two power-play goals.

The two Switzer goals marked the 11th consecutive game in which Las Vegas pushed home man-advantage goals and the third game in a row scoring two or more.

“Everybody’s playing a big part in this team winning,” Miller said. “Guys are coming to the rink and having fun, and it shows.”

Miller’s hat trick was capped off with an empty-net goal, much to the delight of the 4,585 in attendance at the Orleans Arena.

“Our power play is really connecting, guys are moving in quick and getting open,” Miller said.

Switzer’s second goal of the game, coming at the 13:16 mark of the third period, proved to be the game-winner, and was assisted by Miller, who added two assists to his three-goal game.

“I’ve said it before,” Mougenel said, “I think Craig Switzer is one of the best defenseman in the league.”

The Wranglers are now a season-best four games over the .500 mark and are two points behind Bakersfield for the division lead.

“Our goal is to get home-ice advantage,” Miller said. “We’re going to take these last nine games one at a time.”

Jimmy Spratt stopped 31 of 38 shots in the victory.

After taking a two-goal lead with Miller’s power-play goal from Mick Lawrence and Alex Bourret, Bakersfield climbed even with back-to-back goals late in the second period and halfway through the third.

Switzer’s goal was followed by another Miller tally, on a one-timer from Lawrence.

Lawrence and Bourret each recorded three assists.

Three stars: 1. Adam Miller (Hat trick, two assists); 2. Craig Switzer (Two goals); 3. Alex Bourret (Three assists)

Milestones: With the hat trick, Miller ties the franchise record for consecutive games with a point, equaling that of Chris Kenady, who accomplished the feat in the 2003-04 season.

Captain Chris Neiszner opened the game with a goal at the 4:09 mark of the first period, tying the team record for all-time goals with 58.

Up next: Las Vegas has three days off before hosting the Alaska Aces for three games, beginning Thursday night.

Final word: “I’m proud of the guys but we’re still far from where we want to be,” Mougenel said. “But this is a good stepping stone.”

Wranglers jump to early lead, down Bakersfield, 6-2

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, March 14, 2010 | 4:27 a.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers weren’t going to fall behind in this game.

Propelled by three goals in the second period, the Wranglers jumped out to a four-goal lead and chased Bakersfield goaltender Tyler Sims to a 6-2 victory Saturday night.

“I thought guys had great looks out there,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “And it wasn’t just the good looks. It was the executing.”

The victory is the Wranglers’ third consecutive over the Pacific Division-leading Condors.

“I thought we played probably 40 really good minutes, maybe 50,” Mougenel said. “I thought we had a little bit of a lapse in the third, but that’s to be understood.”

Las Vegas netted a season-high four power-play goals in the contest, the second straight game they have scored two or more with the man-advantage.

The first came with just more than two minutes remaining in the first period, when Mick Lawrence backhanded a feed from Adam Miller through Sims’ five-hole.

“We’re moving to the net and stuff is finally working,” Lawrence said.

The second goal also came courtesy of the Lawrence-Miller duo.

Midway through the second period, Miller found Lawrence camped to the right of Sims and threaded a pass through the crease. The Wranglers left-winger knocked it home for his 22nd goal of the season.

“It’s fun playing with that line,” Lawrence said. “We’re always skating and moving. It’s always fast pace and with Miller especially, he’s definitely got a knack for the back of the net.”

Lawrence’s second goal of the contest put Bakersfield in a four-goal hole, and Condors head coach Marty Raymond elected to put Timo Pielmeier in the game.

Wranglers goalie Jimmy Spratt stopped 35 of 37 shots in the victory.

“We came out and right from the get-go, we were ready to go,” Spratt said. “They’re playing real good in front of me and I’m seeing a lot of pucks.”

Between the two Lawrence power-play goals, right-winger Alex Bourret and center Josh Prudden each tallied goals for Las Vegas.

Bourret’s goal came at the 4:51 mark of the period on a breakaway. Nearing the net, he wound up for a slap shot but drew Sims out of his goal and sliding the puck past his outstretched right pad for his 13th goal of the season.

“We’re playing well on both sides of the puck,” Mougenel said. “But we still have to tighten things up on defense. But for the most part, I’m real proud with the way the guys have responded.”

Prudden’s goal came courtesy of forward Jerry Pollastrone, the two weaving a tic-tac-toe of passes on a 2-on-1 that led to Prudden finding Sims’ five-hole for a goal.

Early in the third period, defenseman Craig Switzer scored the Wranglers’ third power-play goal of the game, a shot from the left point that beat Pielmeier.

Switzer’s goal was followed by another power-play tally, Miller’s 26th goal of the season from Bourret at the 10:58 mark.

Las Vegas has scored on seven of their past 12 man-advantages.

“Everybody is out there having fun,” Miller said. “We feel like we’re one of the better teams in the league, and it’s shown in our play of late.”

Three stars: 1. Mick Lawrence (two goals, assist); 2. Jimmy Spratt (35 saves); 3. Alex Bourret (goal, assist).

Roster report: This past week, the Wranglers added two players to their roster, forward Tomas Petruska and defenseman John Wessbecker. Petruska was signed to an amateur tryout agreement from Bowling Green and Wessbecker was acquired from the Trenton Devils in a trade for future considerations.

Going bald: Benefiting St. Baldrick’s for children’s cancer awareness, head coach Ryan Mougenel, three players — Prudden, Michael Ouzas, and Mat Deschamps — and equipment manager Jeff Maxwell are shaving their heads after today’s game.

Knocked out: Captain Chris Neiszner answered the bell late in the third period when Bakersfield’s R. Menei came calling. After the two tussled near center ice, Menei’s jersey slipped off and Neiszner promptly knocked him down with two left hooks.

Up next: Bakersfield, today at the Orleans Arena. With a win, the Wranglers draw within 2 points of the Pacific Division lead.

Final word: “They’re not going to lay down,” Spratt said of Bakersfield.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Chicago baseball fans get taste of home in Las Vegas

Cubs play White Sox in exhibition game at Cashman Field for annual Big League Weekend

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, March 13, 2010 | 10:38 p.m.

The Windy City has moved west — at least for a couple days.

Sitting 26 rows behind home plate at Cashman Field in Las Vegas, Jerry Kern, who grew up in Chicago, enjoyed a glimpse of his childhood Saturday afternoon.

“It’s just like Wrigley Field today with this wind, but a little bit nicer out,” Kern said as he braved wicked desert winds gusting to more than 30 mph.

Kern was one of the many Chicago Cubs fans who made the trip to Las Vegas for 2010 Big League Weekend to watch his team sweep a two-game exhibition series from their crosstown rivals, the Chicago White Sox.

“It’s great here,” he said. “Baseball, gambling and the Cubs are ahead of the White Sox. What more is there?”

Since the 1980s, when Las Vegans started receiving WGN-TV’s broadcasts of the Cubs games, the team’s local fan base has flourished.

Local baseball legend Greg Maddux, now a member of the Cubs organization, said the fan base here flourished in the 1980s, after Las Vegas started receiving WGN-TV’s broadcasts of the Cubs games.

Maddux is back in town with the Cubs as an assistant to General Manager Jim Hendry and is working with pitchers during spring training.

“It’s cool,” he said about being back home. “I live here, and it’s nice coming back home to watch the boys play.”

Ray Mytych, a native Chicagoan, said regular trips to Cashman Field have become a tradition.

“You make new friends and you meet new friends,” said Mytych, who has lived in Las Vegas for 12 years. “You see a lot of Chicagoans, see the Cubs and most importantly, look forward to a new season.”

He said watching the Cubs on television makes him feel more at home.

“I watched WGN as a kid in black and white,” he said. “Watching it here makes me feel like I’m back home in Chicago.”

So, too, does it for Clyde DeWitt and Cherie Lee Williams, who made the move from Los Angeles to Las Vegas a few months ago.

“We love this and try to make it every year,” Williams said. “It’s wonderful to see your team play live.”

DeWitt, who prides himself on being “a one-man crew to get (former Cubs third baseman) Ron Santo into the Hall of Fame,” has attended more than 200 games at Wrigley Field but said watching baseball in Las Vegas never gets old.

“There’s just something about baseball,” he said. “There’s no other sport like it, nothing more relaxing than watching a baseball game.”

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen recalls minor league days in Las Vegas

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, March 13, 2010 | 3:12 a.m.

Friday afternoon, Ozzie Guillen sat on a dugout railing at Cashman Field, fiddling with a fungo bat as he overlooked a familiar place.

“The walls are a little higher,” he said, pointing to left field. “The scoreboard is different. I broke a couple of lights out there a couple times.”

This weekend, the Chicago White Sox manager is back for Big League Weekend in Las Vegas, where he played as a 20-year-old shortstop with the Las Vegas Stars in 1984.

“Yeah, I’m excited to be back here,” he said. “I think it’s great to be here. I love it.”

And while the Guillen of 26 years ago has changed in some ways, he is, in many ways, the same.

He’s a little heavier, a little older. But the infielder-turned-World Series champion manager always had a head for baseball, and that hasn’t changed.

“His baseball knowledge was way ahead of his chronological age,” said Bob Cluck, who managed the Stars in 1984. “He was mature beyond his years. He was the smartest player on the club and the youngest. It was like having a coach on the field.”

And little did Cluck know at the time that there really was a coach on the field — two, actually, as catcher Bruce Bochy has managed in the major leagues for 15 years.

“The first thing on my mind was a 15-year career for him,” the recently retired Cluck said of Guillen from his home in San Diego. “But as I look back on the guys I managed, the guys that have become managers do stick out, particularly Ozzie and Bruce.”

The 1984 Stars of the Pacific Coast League, which also included future Philadelphia Phillies slugger John Kruk, went 71-65 and advanced to the playoffs before losing to the Hawaii Islanders.

“It was such fun,” Cluck said. “The camaraderie and chemistry really blossomed with those guys. Ozzie really could make anyone laugh. On the field, we had fun and worked hard.”

Guillen hit .296 with six home runs that season, his last with the San Diego Padres organization, before being traded to Chicago the following winter.

“It was an awesome team,” Guillen recalled. “We had a good team, went to the playoffs, a few guys made it to the big leagues and two guys were managing.”

“I was the kid. I was the baby,” he said.

During that season, the baby of the team had a baby of his own. Guillen and his wife, Ibis Cardenas, had the first of their three children, which could help explain why, he said, he never lost any money at the casinos.

“I didn’t have no money,” he said. “I just got my first baby, and I couldn’t gamble because I work too hard for my money to lose it that way.”

Guillen said he has one rule for his players in Las Vegas. “I don’t care what you do at night, just make sure you don’t call me doing something stupid out there. Be here at 10, ready to play,” he said.

This series marks the second consecutive that the White Sox and Cubs have traveled north from their Cactus League homes in Arizona.

“It’s too bad we only play two games,” he said. “When you come to Vegas, you just want people to show up because that’s what we come here for, is the fans.”

Wranglers score three power-play goals in 5-4 win over Bakersfield

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, March 13, 2010 | 1:38 a.m.

Friday night, the Las Vegas Wranglers picked up where they left off.

Powered by three power-play goals, the Wranglers defeated the Bakersfield Condors, 5-4, for their second straight victory.

“It was a big win,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “We found a way tonight.”

Wranglers right-winger Alex Bourret scored the game-winning goal, assisted by Adam Miller and Mike Madill on the power play at the 6:24 mark of the third period.

Facing an early one-goal deficit, defenseman Jason Krischuk set the pace with a power-play goal from the point for the tie.

“Krischuk’s had eyes tonight,” Mougenel said. “He’s done a good job of getting the puck to the net.”

The other power-play goal came courtesy of Mick Lawrence to tie the game at 3 early in the second period. Madill, who collected an assist on the goal, recorded three on the night.

“Our power play is clicking like it was in the beginning of the year,” Mougenel said. “I think when you simplify things and get good net presence, good things happen.”

Jimmy Spratt earned his second straight win, stopping 31 of 35 Bakersfield shots in the win.

“He’s going to keep getting better,” Mougenel said. “The more he plays, the more I like him.”

Coupled with losses from the Stockton Thunder and Ontario Reign, the Wranglers (28-26-7) jump into the sixth spot in the conference with 63 points.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wranglers come out flat, lose 5-2 to Bakersfield

By Anthony Fenech

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 | 12:12 a.m.

Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel didn’t have a good feeling as his team warmed-up before Tuesday night’s game at Bakersfield.

“We weren’t looking sharp,” he said. “I didn’t like the feel of us before the game and didn’t like where our minds were at.”

The feeling carried over from pregame to game time, as the Wranglers lost to the Condors, 5-2, at Rabobank Arena.

“I didn’t think we played very good,” Mougenel said. “In every aspect of the game, from goaltending on.”

A three-goal, second-period spurt by Bakersfield provided goaltender Timo Pielmeier with all the offense he needed, stopping 18 of 20 Las Vegas shots on the night.

After forward Andrew Ianiero gave the Condors a 1-0 lead midway through the second, back-to-back goals by Eric Regan and Gino Guyer put Las Vegas in a three-goal hole.

“We looked like we had just played a lot of games, like we were in the last leg of five games in five days,” Mougenel said.

But goals in the last minute of the second period and the first minute of the third period kept the Wranglers alive. The tallies came courtesy of Adam Miller on the power play, his 24th goal of the season, and Josh Prudden.

Down a goal late and once again on the power play, Las Vegas’ special teams faltered, allowing a shorthanded goal to Guyer, his second of the game, for an insurance goal with 9:55 left on the clock.

Ryan Menei pushed home an empty-net goal with 54 seconds left to ice the game.

“I was disappointed in our discipline and disappointed in our execution from everybody,” Mougenel said. “These are the games that are going to haunt us in the end.”

Las Vegas goaltender Joel Gistedt stopped 18 of 22 Condors shots.

After an emotional weekend in which the team took two out of three shootout games against the Ontario Reign, Mougenel said he could see the impact on his team’s play.

“The leaders and older players, extensions of me, need to make other players accountable,” Mougenel said. “As a coach, you feel it before the game and there’s only so much you can do.”

The Wranglers play Wednesday night in Bakersfield before coming home this weekend to face the Condors at home.

Roster report: Left-winger Ned Lukacevic tallied an assist before getting called up to the Providence Bruins, the AHL affiliate of the Boston Bruins.

Lukacevic has 61 points in 58 games this season, including a team-leading 25 goals.

“It hurts losing him, but it’s a great chance for him to go up there and do his thing,” Mougenel said. “If we get him back, we get him back. But that’s the nature of the beast.”

Lukacevic played 52 games with Providence during the 2008-09 season.

“This is also a great opportunity for guys to step in and fill the void,” Mougenel said.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Saint Mary's stuns Gonzaga to win tourney in Las Vegas

By Anthony Fenech

Monday, March 8, 2010 | 11 p.m.

Finally, the wait was over.

With less than a minute to play in Monday's championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament, Saint Mary's center Omar Samhan took the most gratifying walk of his life.

Showered with a championship mix of cheers, chants and boos, the smiling Gaels senior made his way to the Saint Mary's bench with his team in control of its destiny, then firmly wrapped his arms around head coach Randy Bennett.

"I wanted this more than anything else in my life," Samhan said after the Gaels' 81-62 win over Gonzaga. "I knew that this was not only the biggest game in my life, but it would also define my career here. I'm so fortunate that it came true."

Saint Mary's won't have to wait this year to see whether the NCAA Tournament committee will call its name on Selection Sunday. This year, no Bulldogs team was going to push the Gaels around like it might have in the past.

"This group was able to knock the door down," head coach Randy Bennett said. "I was really proud of our guys. We had a chip on our shoulder all year, they were there last year and these guys were determined."

But pushing back almost proved to be a costly mistake.

Midway through the second half, after leading throughout the first half and carrying the slimmest of leads into the break, Saint Mary's momentum came to a halt.

Samhan, after fouling Gonzaga's Robert Sacre, shoved him, drawing a technical foul and a smattering of boos from the strong contingent of Bulldogs fans at the Orleans Arena.

"When there's blood in the water with that team, it's over, you're done," Samhan said, "So the second he told me to bring it on, I went back at him."

"I told Coach B, 'My bad, I'm sorry,'" he continued. "But we had to take the technical on that one. We weren't backing down tonight."

Minutes after the ensuing free throws cut Saint Mary's six-point lead in half, the Gaels responded with a six-point run of their own.

Then came another six-point run, pushing the lead to double-digits, before Mickey McConnell's icing on the cake: a rainbow three-pointer that buried any chance of a Gonzaga comeback.

McConnell, the Gaels' junior point guard, took home tournament MVP honors with a career-high 26 points, six assists and one turnover, making four of his seven shots from behind the arc.

"I made a conscious effort to be aggressive tonight," he said. "I got a couple open looks I normally wouldn't get and the first half really got me going."

Ben Allen added four three-pointers of his own in the victory, with the Australian senior scoring 20 points and freshman guard Jorden Page, also from Australia, scored 11 points.

Both made crucial plays as Saint Mary's weathered Gonzaga's second-half storm and ultimately pulled away.

"We knew we were going to be in for a tough game," Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. "They were hungry, played with desperation and down the stretch in the second half, just outcompeted us."

After Bennett removed the Gaels' starting five in the waning moments, the group embraced in a huddle on the bench.

On the same Orleans Arena court a year ago, Saint Mary's was blasted by Gonzaga, losing by 25 points in the championship game, and subsequently was passed on for the NCAA Tournament.

"Last year was one of the worst feelings," McConnell said. "We didn't want to leave it up to the committee this year."

And during this regular season, Gonzaga had twice bested Saint Mary's and won the conference title outright by one game.

"The team we beat and the program we beat is a very good program," Bennett said. "It feels good to beat the best team."

Samhan, the reigning WCC Defensive Player of the Year, totaled nine points — all in the second half — collected seven rebounds and had six blocks.

He was not only motivated by the Saint Mary's script on the front of his jersey, but also by a message that was printed inside of his warm-up shirt.

"Not P.O.Y?" the shirt read, as a reference to being passed on for conference Player of the Year honors, which went to Gonzaga's Matt Bouldin. "Keep hating."

In the midst of celebrating on the team's bench, Samhan proudly pulled up his shirt and unveiled the message to Gaels fans.

"I wanted to show it so bad," he said. "Being the MVP means you're No. 1. It's not a stats thing or a personal thing. It's a team thing."

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Gonzaga in familiar territory for Las Vegas championship game

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, March 7, 2010 | 11:27 p.m.

As the clock ticked down on Sunday’s West Coast Conference semifinal matchup between Loyola Marymount and Gonzaga, a chant started from behind the Bulldogs' bench.

“This is our house!” the Gonzaga student section chanted at the Orleans Arena, “This is our house!”

And after a 77-62 defeat of the No. 5-seeded Lions, the Bulldogs are once again headed to their house, the WCC Tournament championship game, where they have resided the past 13 seasons.

“It was definitely a hard-fought and hard-earned win,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “But we knew it was going to be like that.”

“It was basketball in March: It wasn’t real pretty, but I thought we were very effective.”

A three-pointer by sophomore Bol Kong at the 5:40 mark of the second half put the dagger in Loyola Marymount’s tournament run, giving the No. 14-ranked Bulldogs a double-digit lead that proved too much to overcome.

“Coming in here, all week, we were working on being in attack mode,” freshman forward Elias Harris said. “The coaches made it really simple: Just attack.”

After coasting to a 16-point halftime lead, the Bulldogs held a firm grip on the game until the nine-minute mark of the second half.

Led by point guard Vernon Teel, who scored 14 points, the Lions eventually cut Gonzaga’s halftime lead in half and at one point, trailed by only six.

“It was a physical game,” Harris said. “We knew it was going to be a fist fight and it was nothing short of that. They play hard, with a chip on their shoulder, and I thought we did a pretty good job of matching up with that.”

Loyola Marymount’s exit from the tournament comes after defeating Pepperdine and San Francisco in back-to-back games to advance to the semifinals.

The conference’s regular-season champions held the Lions to shooting 36.7 percent from the field.

Steven Gray scored 18 points and added seven assists for Gonzaga, and 2010 WCC Player of the Year Matt Bouldin scored 12 points.

“It’s huge for our guys to be playing in an atmosphere like this,” Bouldin said, referring to the younger-than-usual Gonzaga roster. “Playing on neutral sites like this, against teams that want to beat you this bad, it’s huge.”

Standing in the way of Gonzaga’s quest for back-to-back conference tournament titles – which would be the sixth in the past seven years – is a familiar foe: St. Mary’s College.

The Gaels advanced to Monday night’s final at the Orleans Arena by dropping Portland, 69-55.

“We played well,” St. Mary’s head coach Randy Bennett said. “We needed to play well. I think the bye worked in our favor and that’s why you play for it, because it worked in our favor.”

Four players scored in double digits for St. Mary’s, including senior center Omar Samhan, who recorded a double double with 13 rebounds.

“The team did a great job,” Samhan said. “Nobody was talking about Monday, about the WCC Championship or anything like that. We were focused and prepared for Portland, because if we weren’t, we’d be on an airplane on Monday.”

The 2010 WCC Defensive Player of the Year also added four blocks and was recently named the conference’s Player of the Week.

“I thought we were really sharp defensively,” he said.

The Gaels led by 11 at the break, shot 55.6 percent from the field and held a game-high lead of 24 points late in the second half.

Gonzaga and St. Mary’s have met twice this season, and the Bulldogs have won both contests. The Gaels finished a game behind in the regular season standings.

“Tomorrow night, it’s all about who is excited to play,” Samhan said. “I think it will be different because we’ve improved defensively and we’re really sharp right now.”

Wranglers get win, find groove ahead of playoffs

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, March 7, 2010 | 9:52 p.m.

It took three games, three overtimes and three shootouts, but Sunday afternoon the Las Vegas Wranglers left Ontario, Calif., with what they came for: A point.

Ned Lukacevic’s goal past Ontario’s Mike Zacharias in the fourth shootout round gave the Wranglers a 4-3 win and a share of the final playoff spot in the National Conference.

“Our team weathered the storm,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “Our defense was awesome tonight. We did all the little things right and just played a great team game.”

“We played that team game the whole weekend,” he continued. “Shootouts can go either way, but I guess the stars were aligned for us.”

The goal brought closure to a pivotal weekend series between the two teams that featured overtime and beyond each night.

“We love winning no matter what,” captain Chris Neiszner said, “but winning like this, the hard-fought way we did at the time we did, it’s huge.”

For the third consecutive game, Las Vegas had to fight back, and did.

Friday night it was a three-goal deficit, Saturday night a two-goal deficit, but on Sunday the Wranglers erased a one-goal lead midway through the second period on Chris Neiszner’s 10th goal of the season.

About five minutes later, center Adam Miller netted an unassisted goal, his 23rd of the season, and put the visitors in an unfamiliar position heading into the third, with a one-goal lead.

But the lead didn’t stick, as Ontario’s Jon Rheault pushed the game-tying goal past Wranglers goaltender Joel Gistedt with 7:25 remaining in the third.

Thrust into duty early in the period because of an injury to starting goaltender Michael Ouzas, Gistedt stopped 15 of 16 shots, including all five Reign shootout attempts.

“I couldn’t be happier for him,” Mougenel said of Gistedt, who also relieved Ouzas in the first game of the series and led the team to victory.

“He had a rough start here,” he said. “It says a lot about the character and type of kid he is, to come in with 10 minutes to go and get another win for us.”

Neiszner also praised Gistedt’s performance.

“It’s hard on a goalie when you can’t get your rhythm,” he said, referring to the back-and-forth trips Gistedt has made to AHL San Antonio, “He’s become a leader for us and winning in these shootouts does nothing but give him more confidence.”

After Zacharias – who was put in goal just before the shootout for the second straight night – denied Miller, defenseman Craig Switzer and Mick Lawrence, Lukacevic’s goal gave the Wranglers the victory.

The forward leads Las Vegas with nine goals, eight assists and 17 points against Ontario this season.

"He’s a professional offensive player and he’s got a certain level of confidence he’s playing with right now," Mougenel said. "The game is slowing down for him and he’s speeding up."

Lawrence made sure the Wranglers were off on the right foot Sunday, scoring on the first shift, just nine seconds in.

The lead would last until Sean O’Connor scored on the power play with less than two minutes to play in the period. Ontario’s Tim Kraus then scored halfway through the second for the lead.

“To win these games, it’s a war,” Neiszner said. “You’re not going to win all of the battles, but they bring the team together and we overcame them to win this series.”

Heading into the weekend, Las Vegas trailed Ontario by just a point, or one overtime victory.

The teams are now even at 59 points, but Las Vegas leads the two with 26 wins.

The Wranglers resume play Tuesday and Wednesday with the final two games of their California road trip, traveling to Bakersfield to take on the Condors.

“The best thing for us is that it’s playoff hockey,” Neiszner said. “We’re playing like a more urgent team.”

Wranglers force overtime but lose to Ontario in shootout

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, March 7, 2010 | 12:21 a.m.

For the second straight game, the Las Vegas Wranglers were down.

Trailing by two goals heading into the third period Saturday night, the Wranglers would once again have to climb out of a hole.

They did, scoring three goals in the third period to force overtime. But the Wranglers lost, 4-3, in a shootout to the Ontario Reign, before 7,818 people at Citizens Business Bank Arena.

“There were a ton of positives from tonight,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “At times, it was a frustrating game, but the guys played hard. They battled hard, and we found a way to get a point on the road.”

The extra point earned from the 1-0 shootout victory gives the Reign a one-point lead over Las Vegas in the National Conference standings.

Reign right-winger Jon Rheault’s goal past Wranglers goalie Joel Gistedt in the third round of the shootout was the game-winning tally.

“Did we play good enough to win both games? Last night, no,” Mougenel said. “But tonight I felt we played good. That’s just how it goes.”

What started as a special teams nightmare for Las Vegas — allowing two shorthanded goals in the first period — turned around in the final period when Adam Miller and Chris Neiszner each netted power-play goals to erase the two-goal deficit.

“The shorthanded goals are inexcusable,” Mougenel said. “That falls on me. I need to get guys on the power play that are committed to work.”

“But we got our power play back,” he said. “Our guys are on track and when we needed it most, it was there.”

The pair connected on their 22nd and ninth goals of the year, respectively, within 1:16 of each other just before the midway point of the third period.

Neiszner’s game-tying goal came at the 9:55 mark of the third period but wouldn’t be the last of regulation.

With 1:18 left on the clock, Ontario’s Geoff Walker scored on a goal assisted by Michael Pelech, for a late lead.

But with an empty net at the other end, Wranglers forward Jerry Pollastrone was, for the second straight night, in the right place at the right time. He pushed the game-tying goal past Reign goaltender Curtis Darling with 19 seconds left.

Pollastrone scored the team’s shootout-winner in Friday night’s contest.

After no shots were recorded in the five-minute overtime period, Rheault’s goal in the shootout kept Ontario ahead of Las Vegas in the standings.

Reign coach Karl Taylor made a bold move heading into the shootout, electing to swap goaltenders. Backup Mike Zacharias stopped all of the Wranglers’ five shootout attempts.

“It was a great coaching move on his part,” Mougenel said.

Las Vegas’ Gistedt allowed three goals on 35 shots and stopped four out of the five Reign shootout attempts.

“Everybody is taking ownership, which is refreshing,” Mougenel said. “And guys are finding leadership from guys like Neiszner and Mike Madill. They’ve done a great job of leading these guys to not be afraid of their success.”

The two teams will face off for the rubber match of the three-game series at 5 p.m. Sunday.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Wranglers come from behind to beat Ontario, 7-6

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, March 6, 2010 | 12:07 a.m.

It was a game that didn’t want to end.

But with a Jerry Pollastrone goal in the 12th shootout round, the first of three playoff-implicating games was over, as the Wranglers came back to defeat the Ontario Reign, 7-6.

“We showed our resiliency tonight,” Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “Guys kept believing, throwing pucks at the net, and we knew good things would happen.”

The victory in Ontario, Calif., came in the most unlikely of fashions. The Wranglers allowed four second-period goals and watched goaltender Michael Ouzas get pulled, then responded with four goals of their own in the third period.

Back-to-back Ned Lukacevic goals, the first coming on a penalty shot, drew Las Vegas even with Ontario to send the game to overtime.

“It gave us a kick in the pants that we needed and the guys never stopped working from there,” Mougenel said.

After the Reign blanked the Wranglers in shots during the extra period but failed to manage a goal, the game went to a shootout in which the Wranglers out-scored the Reign, 7-6, in 12 rounds.

“Definitely two big points for our club,” Lukacevic, who leads the team in goals with 25, said. “It was an exciting game, and we were confident we could do it.”

The victory gives Las Vegas the one point they needed to equalize Ontario’s 56 points in the standings. The two teams are tied for the final playoff spot in the National Conference.

After skating to a one-all tie after one period, Ontario struck for three quick goals in the middle frame to chase Ouzas.

Wranglers defenseman Mike Madill netted a shot at the 12:13 mark of the second period to pull Las Vegas within two. But Ontario’s Sean O’Connor responded less than three minutes later for a three-goal lead heading into the third.

“I told them not to change a thing and that they were playing well,” Mougenel said of the conversation during the second intermission. “But I also told them if there was a person in there that didn’t think we could score three goals, to stay in the locker room, because I knew we could.”

In relief, Joel Gistedt stopped 17 of 19 shots, including a crucial penalty shot by Ontario’s Greg Hogeboom six minutes into the third period.

“It was a game-changer,” Mougenel said.

Down three goals late in the contest, Mick Lawrence ignited the visitors with a goal from John Schwarz.

Just 50 seconds later, Lukacevic was awarded a penalty shot and beat Ontario goalie Curtis Darling. Suddenly, Las Vegas was down just a goal with over half of the period to play.

On the goal, Lukacevic faked a shot to one side, saw the other side of the net open and took the chance.

“It was exciting but nerve-racking, and luckily I got the result I wanted,” he said.

With 6:45 left on the clock, Lukacevic completed the comeback with a power-play goal assisted by forward Alex Bourret and defenseman Jason Krischuk.

“Our guys did a great job of feeding pucks to the net tonight,” he said. “We kept giving ourselves opportunities to win the game.”

Out-shot 31-26 in the contest, Las Vegas scored on half of their eight shots in the third period.

In the shootout, Gistedt’s save on Ontario right-winger Tony Voce sealed the victory on his fifth attempt to end the game.

“Joel gave us the boost we needed,” Mougenel said.

Las Vegas’ Achilles heel in the near-loss was on the penalty kill, where they allowed four Ontario power-play goals in seven opportunities.

“Guys need to step up more and find a better way to get those pucks not to go in,” Lukacevic said.

Tied in the Pacific Division standings, the Wranglers and Reign face off for two more games this weekend, Saturday and Sunday.

“It was a huge win,” Mougenel said. “But tomorrow is another day.”

He was undecided on who would start in net tomorrow night at Citizens Business Bank Arena.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Wranglers prepare for key, three-game series against Ontario

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, March 5, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

The first crucial series of the season's homestretch is here for the Las Vegas Wranglers.

Trailing the Reign by one point in the Pacific Division standings, the Wranglers will travel to Ontario, Calif., for a three-game series with the Reign — a series with at least six points at stake.

"They're a division opponent and we have to go in and beat them," Wranglers captain and center Chris Neiszner said.

Coming off a home series win against the second-place Stockton Thunder, the team is in a prime position to leapfrog the Reign, a team it played well against earlier in the season.

Las Vegas is 6-2 against Ontario, with both losses of the overtime and shootout variety.

"We've matched up well against them here and there," Neiszner said. "But they are a good defensive team."

The Wranglers have out-shot the Reign 4-3 in the series. They tied for shots-on-goal in an Ontario shootout win on Dec. 18.

Head coach Ryan Mougenel said he thinks the previous contests won't have much bearing on the outcome of this series.

"I don't think it will matter," he said. "When you look at it, if anything, it's a little bit of a mental edge. But we know they're a real good team that has been playing real good as of late."

Both teams share the same win-loss record, but Ontario is hanging onto third place because of an additional point from an overtime game.

The two teams also are battling for the final playoff spot in the National Conference with the West Division's Utah Grizzlies and Alaska Aces, which are each five points ahead of Las Vegas' 54 points in the standings.

Wranglers goaltender Michael Ouzas has a 1.75 goals-against average in eight starts against Ontario this season, the last of which came in a Jan. 9 victory.

"Last weekend was a big weekend for us," Ouzas said. "But at the same time, we're still in last place right now, so we have to be prepared and ready for Ontario."

Ouzas, who didn't know if he would get the Friday night start, said the team needs to be sharp and play each of the 60 minutes on the ice.

"We have to be tough," he said. "When we're ready to play, we can play. We can't be happy with anything less than a win."

And while the team has struggled on the road this season, maybe more importantly for the Wranglers, the play on special teams has been improved lately.

While winning two of three games last week, the Wranglers went 31.6 percent with the man-advantage, scoring on six of 19 opportunities.

"Special teams is the big thing," Neiszner said, noting that in recent games the officiating has become tighter.

"Our power play needs to produce and our penalty kill needs to keep doing what it's doing," he said. "The two of them combined make a difference. It's always nice to have one going, but if we have both going, that's what we're looking for."

Mougenel agreed the team needs to be sharp on special teams and said it had a good, confident week of practice.

"There's a renewed confidence about not only their game, but about the guy next to them and their game," he said. "And that's really the most important thing."

During the week, the team also welcomed back center Justin Bernhardt from AHL San Antonio, while goaltender Joel Gistedt was recalled by the Rampage.

"He's been and can be a real good player for us," Mougenel said. "Hopefully he can give us a boost."

Returning to Ontario this weekend are right-wingers Jon Rheault and Geoff Walker, assigned from the AHL Manchester Monarchs.

Walker appeared in 10 games for the Reign this season before getting called up to Manchester and last season led the Ontario roster in goals, with 21 as a rookie.

"Just like at the beginning of the year, we knew it was going to come down to this," Mougenel said. "And now we're excited."

"That's the way we're approaching the weekend, excited and confident. We're excited to play well and get it going down there."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

UFC helping state with census count

By Anthony Fenech

Thursday, March 4, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship and Nevada's secretary of state are teaming for a different kind of fight: The 2010 census.

Wednesday afternoon at the Grant Sawyer State Office Building in downtown Las Vegas, Secretary of State Ross Miller announced a partnership between Nevada and the UFC to promote awareness for the upcoming census.

"UFC is Nevada's sports franchise," Miller said. "And they are the best partner you could have when trying to accomplish something as significant as this."

During the press conference, Miller unveiled the state's advertising campaign, which heavily targets the 18- to 30-year-old demographic, one that has shown to be less likely to fill out the forms.

"It's hard to overstate the important of the census to Nevada," Miller said.

According to Miller, completing the 2010 census means about $917 of federal funding per person each year, which translates to almost $10,000 a person over the 10-year time period.

"This isn't something people should ignore," he continued. "Nor is it about the federal government trying to see where people live. This is about Nevada getting their share of the pie."

Former UFC light-heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin was in attendance and is featured in one of the state's television spots promoting the campaign.

"Obviously anything in Nevada is UFC territory," Griffin said. "We take it that way and the more funding for Nevada, the more for the UFC."

The campaign will utilize three different television commercials — one including Griffin and UFC President Dana White — as well as advertising outdoors.

The 2010 census forms will be mailed out around March 17.

This marks the second time UFC has collaborated with the state to promote a political cause, dating back to the 2008 presidential election, when both parties urged citizens to vote.

"Anytime we've needed them, they have come through for us," Miller said. "They are such a persuasive brand for our demographic."

He said Nevada is the only western state to allocate a portion of its state budget for a campaign like this.

"It's a competition amongst states," Miller said. "If Nevadans don't fill out the forms, other states will."

Monday, March 1, 2010

Fans, locals share Speedway for annual NASCAR weekend

By Anthony Fenech

Monday, Mar. 1, 2010 | 1:45 a.m.

Luke Aikins makes the jump once a year.

He falls from the sky, his arms and legs outstretched, descending to Earth at the 1.5-mile oval of asphalt most commonly referred to as Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

There are mountains to his left, mountains to his right and desert everywhere he looks.

In the distance, a speck of a city becomes clearer and clearer as he freefalls faster and faster.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “There really isn’t anything like this place.”

He lands on the track next to a parade of people who greet the Red Bull skydiver with cheers, much like the Las Vegas valley welcomes NASCAR Weekend.

The fall is intense, he said, seconds upon seconds of adrenaline and exhilaration, but with a snap of his fingers, it’s over, much like the past weekend at LVMS.

But what was once a run-of-the-mill stop on the major league stock car circuit has become much more. The Speedway could hold the key to a western expansion of the sport.

“I’ve jumped at Texas and at Bristol,” Aikins said. “But none of them compare to this. The whole atmosphere is just, like, Vegas.”

Both NASCAR and its fan base are starting to realize it.

Donna Shoemaker lives in Linden, Wash., a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. She makes 21-hour trip from the northwest every year.

“I love it here,” she said Sunday morning. “Just look where I’m standing.”

She leaned on the garage of Home Depot’s No. 20 car, driven by Joey Logano. Stuffed into two plastic bags were a Christmas’ worth of autographed NASCAR memorabilia.

“We practically live in the Neon Garage when we’re here,” she said about the 4-year-old racing and entertainment hub that lies just inside the racetrack. “I’ve met most of my favorite drivers down here and a couple even remembered me from last year.”

It’s this kind of fan-to-driver interaction that has set the Speedway ahead of the competition, with some comparing the facilities to – gulp – Daytona.

“This reminds me of Daytona,” Phil Cummings said. “But better.”

And Cummings would know -- he's a Daytona native who migrated west to Las Vegas just a few months ago.

“You can’t beat this, man,” he said. “To be down here and smell the rubber, it’s something else. It’s not Daytona, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve been to a majority of the tracks and this one really stands out.”

On Sunday, the Speedway sold out its Sprint Cup date for the ninth consecutive year. The fans have bought in, and more surely than slowly, NASCAR brass is buying in as well.

“I love the track and I love coming to the city,” said Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing. “It’s a huge deal for us when you get fans to travel all over just to be here and then they see all the fun things they get to do.”

Gibbs runs one of the most powerful teams in the sport and believes that, thanks to innovative ideas like the Neon Garage, NASCAR’s brightest light has yet to shine.

“Our best years are in front of us,” Gibbs said. “We might have a track to get in the northwest and hopefully we can get out here more.”

Currently, the furthest destinations west on the tour are Fontana and Sonoma, Calif., followed by Las Vegas and Phoenix.

“Las Vegas is different,” said Zach Price, a rear tire man for A.J. Allmendinger’s No. 43 car, most famously driven by “The King” Richard Petty.

“The track isn’t much different, but everything around it is so different. It’s a different kind of fan, more lively than I’ve seen.”

Randy Heffner, part of Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Old Spice team, agrees with Price.

“I think the fan base in the West is good,” he said. “Maybe not so much at Fontana, but here it is really good and I think Las Vegas has done a great job of promoting it.”

Fontana is the westernmost city that hosts two events a year.

Aikins, the skydiving NASCAR fan who carries as much of an appetite for thrill as the drivers themselves, said the proof is in the pudding.

“Look at these fans,” he said, scanning the pit road area. “You can’t even tell the difference between team members and fans.”

And if he’s certain of the positive energy created by Las Vegas’ NASCAR experience, he’s certain of something else:

“I’d love to make this jump twice a year.”