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."

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