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.

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