Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sierra Vista grad plays before home crowd at Cashman Field

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, April 25, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

Sacramento River Cats first baseman Chris Carter likes being back home.

For proof, just look at Saturday night’s players’ guest list at Cashman Field.

“There’s probably close to 100 people on the list,” River Cats manager Tony DeFrancesco said. “He should be pretty excited to be play in front of people at home.”

Carter, once a state champion shortstop for Sierra Vista, is back in Las Vegas as the highest-ranked prospect in the Oakland A’s organization. In the second at-bat of his homecoming, a 2-1 Sacramento victory over the Las Vegas 51s, he smacked a two-run home run off of Brad Mills.

“I’ve been waiting for this all season,” he said before batting practice on Saturday. “When I went to Triple-A, I looked on the schedule and saw us coming here early. It’s been on my mind for a long time.”

Landing in Oakland two years ago after being involved in a pair of trades, the 23-year-old has power-hit his way into the middle of the River Cats lineup and the immediate future of the A’s.

“Everything’s been going good so far,” he said. “I’m just trying to work on my overall game, polish up and get better. Getting better is the main thing right now.”

After leading Sierra Vista to its first state crown in baseball as a senior in 2005, Carter was drafted in the 15th round of that June’s MLB Amateur Draft by the Chicago White Sox.

During the 2007 offseason, he was traded from the White Sox to Arizona for outfielder Carlos Quentin. Just two weeks later, he was traded again, from Arizona to Oakland as the key piece in a deal for starting pitcher Dan Haren.

In each of his six professional seasons, Carter has hit for double-digit home runs, including a career-high 39 in high Class-A ball in 2008.

“He has unbelievable power,” said DeFrancesco. “He’s been driving the ball good, and he has a chance to be a great player.”

DeFrancesco welcomed Carter late last season, and Carter did not disappoint, hitting four home runs in 13 games for Sacramento.

“He’s going to have plenty of time down here to get his feet wet and his swing locked in,” DeFrancesco said. “But he will have his time.”

Drafted as a shortstop, Carter has played five positions defensively. He followed his 39-home run season in 2008 with a 28-homer campaign between Double-A and Triple-A last season.

“Whenever my time is, I’ll get up there,” he said.

In the meantime, DeFrancesco is focusing on preparing Carter to be better defensively.

“His bat is going to come in here and play real quick,” he said. “But his defense is improving and he has to learn how to become an everyday first baseman. I think that will work itself out over the summer.”

Carter added a single on the night, moving his average to .283 with three home runs and 10 runs batted in on the season.

Among his fans in attendance were former teammates from the 2005 Sierra Vista championship team.

“We all still talk,” Carter said. “We had a real good team that year. There were a lot of seniors and I think we had the same team as the year before. A lot of them are coming, so I want to do good.”

Friday, April 23, 2010

Wranglers looking ahead to next season on the ice

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, April 23, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

After a season that saw the Wranglers make it to the first round of the playoffs, the question now is what will next year’s team look like?

“I anticipate there being a bunch of players back, but right now, I just don’t know,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “Nobody, at this time, has confirmed to return next season.”

On April 13, the Wranglers 2009-10 ECHL campaign ended in a series-deciding Game 5 loss to the Utah Grizzlies.

During the year, the team underwent constant changes as the result of player movement and operating under the league’s salary cap. But it recovered from a slow start and finished in fifth place in the National Conference.

“We got a lot of production out of players that I didn’t think, and maybe they didn’t even think, was there,” Mougenel said.

He named players whose consistent play helped stabilize a lineup that shuffled players back-and-forth to the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League and lost players to overseas teams.

“I definitely got every ounce of some of the players I had,” he said.

And while some players he brought to Las Vegas spent a vast majority of the season in San Antonio, others joined the team on the fly and helped the Wranglers advance to the playoffs.

Jimmy Spratt was called up late in the season from the Southern Professional Hockey League and was the team’s starting goaltender in the playoffs.

Mougenel tabbed former first-round pick Alex Bourret from overseas near midseason, and the forward became an integral part of the Wranglers’ offensive play.

“One of the biggest things I think the players understood this year is that, in this league, trading players, bringing them in and then shipping them out is not the answer,” Mougenel said. “But when that happens and you all play hard for each other, you can have success.”

What will next year’s roster look like?

“The one thing that I got away with a little bit was keeping the right type of person,” Mougenel said. “Despite how talented or what kind of offensive numbers they put up, our guys will be my type of people.”

That means similar personalities to this year’s players like Adam Miller, Craig Switzer, Chris Neiszner, Kyle Hagel and Ned Lukacevic, whose work ethic Mougenel praised.

“We have a mix of older guys and younger guys,” he said. “There will be guys coming back and there are guys with strong ties to our community that want to be here. They loved playing here, enjoyed playing in front of these fans and want to come back.”

Some players, however, will be looking to pursue opportunities in higher professional leagues, or possibly overseas.

Mougenel has the ability to retain players rights by either qualifying them or re-signing them, something he will determine at a later time because of the upcoming 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

Two players in limbo are Lukacevic and goaltender Michael Ouzas, who missed the playoffs because of an ankle injury but expects to return to the ice somewhere next season.

“I’ll explore all of my options over the summer and then decide,” Ouzas said. “I have no idea where I’m going to end up or if it’s back in Vegas.

“I’d love to play there but, if not, I really enjoyed the team. We just have to see what happens.”

A more interesting case would be that of Lukacevic, who scored 28 goals with the Wranglers this season and played eight games with AHL Providence.

“I’m setting goals for myself that I’m going to move on,” he said. “But while I’m trying to think positive, I won’t get too far ahead of myself.”

The left-winger said he’d like to play in the AHL, but if that’s not in the cards, he would be open to returning to Las Vegas.

“It’s a great community here,” Lukacevic said. “The loyal Wranglers fans should be proud of themselves. They have proven that hockey in Las Vegas belongs.”

Whether that specific of pair of Wranglers returns is just a small piece of the puzzle that Mougenel, heading into his second year as coach, hopes to complete.

“I was really impressed with some of the young guys that were brought in here,” he said. “But we need to identify where we can get better and go from there.”

Sunday, April 18, 2010

John Force grabs top spot at Las Vegas NHRA Nationals

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, April 18, 2010 | 6:58 p.m.

Class is back in session.

John Force, the most successful NHRA funny car driver in history, delivered that message to the rest of the motorsports world Sunday afternoon at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I can race again,” an emotional Force said. “I’m back in the game, I can compete and I can still do this.”

Force took home the top spot in the NHRA Nationals with a victory over Tony Pedregon, topping out at a speed of 284.93 mph for his third win of the 2010 season.

After a 2007 injury led to a pair of unsuccessful trips in Las Vegas -- disqualifying in 2008 and losing in the first round of the nationals last year -- Force explained afterward the motivation behind his recent success at the track.

“I’m working to show my kids that their dad can still do this,” he said. “They never saw me win. Every time I won, the trophies were taller than them. Sixty years old is not old and my family pushed me to do this.”

Force defeated his daughter, Ashley Force Hood, in the semifinals, besting her by 0.133 of a second.

The victory was the third of his decorated career not having started in the top half of the bracket.

“The hardest thing I’m working for is to be able to compete,” Force said. “We all want a championship in the end, but I want to show my kids, especially Courtney and Brittany, how much this means to me and how much I love it.”

His youngest two daughters are competing in the Top Alcohol Dragster division.

Force’s win puts him atop the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series standings with 553 points, 120 more than Matt Hagen, who was eliminated by Force in the second round.

Pedregon, the runner-up to Force, sits in fifth place.

“He started with no budget,” Force said. “He put it back together, doing whatever it takes. He was very emotional after the race but he’ll get right. He’s way too good.”

Larry Dixon’s Al-Anabi Racing dragster took home first place in the Top Fuel division, defeating Cory McClenathan for back-to-back victories and the points lead.

“I love it when our plan comes together,” Dixon said. “We had a great car all weekend, just unbelievable and very strong through qualifying. It was a great weekend all around.”

Dixon’s win was his 51st NHRA series victory in his 95th final round, and this year he is a perfect 3-0 under those circumstances.

Last weekend, he won the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Spring Nationals and remains one of the hottest cars in the division.

“My adrenaline and focus got better as the round went on,” Dixon said. “You don’t want to get left behind.”

In the Pro Stock division finals, Mike Edwards went from the top spot to victory lane by defeating Greg Stanfield.

Edwards, who has been victorious four out of the past six races this season, beat Stanfield by a car length and continues his stranglehold in the points standings.

“My team is outrageously dependable,” Edwards said. “It was a 180-degree change from last week at Houston.”

His 701 points leads the Pro Stock division by 261 points over Allen Johnson.

“Our team did a great job of making adjustments to get this car to do what it could,” he said. “My hat's off to them.”

Mets legend Dwight Gooden mingles with fans in Las Vegas

By Anthony Fenech

Sunday, April 18, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

Dwight Gooden was Tim Lincecum.

Twenty-six summers ago, Gooden exploded onto the Major League scene with the New York Mets, winning a Cy Young Award in his second professional season and consistently baffling hitters to the tune of two consecutive 200-strikeout seasons.

These days, Lincecum, the young Giants ace, has won back-to-back Cy Youngs with the same dominating presence on the mound, and he and Gooden are widely regarded as the best young pitchers of their time.

Saturday afternoon, Gooden sat behind a table at Field of Dreams inside The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace and watched Lincecum topple the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“He’s tough. He’s got that fastball like I did,” Gooden said, watching the right-hander on a nearby television. “And he’s got a good over-the-top curveball that you don’t see much anymore. But his change-up, I didn’t have that.”

“I like to watch great pitchers like that, especially nowadays when the game is more offensive, with the stadiums being bandboxes and all that. It’s good to see.”

Gooden was in town for a Saturday autograph session, where he interacted with fans, including a pair of surprised New Yorkers.

“I watched Doc growing up my whole life,” said Steve Polikoff, who had no idea Gooden was making the appearance.

“It was very cool to meet him, just one of those things that was an unexpected opportunity I just couldn’t pass up,” he said.

Gooden signed a baseball for Polikoff, a Yankees fan, who said the ball could help straighten out his son, a Red Sox fan.

“Somehow I had a couple of boys whose decisions are scattered,” Polikoff jokingly said. “And one that loves rooting against his dad.”

In his first trip to Las Vegas, Gooden was part of the New York Yankees 1996 World Series-winning ballclub that was invited by Don King to attend a Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield title fight.

“Vegas is cool,” said Gooden, who lives in New Jersey. “I’ve been here four or five times. I’d love to come out more, but I hate flying.”

Another surprised Yankees fan was Danny Santiago, a native New Yorker who talked with Gooden about watching him play in his early years after getting dropped off at Yankee Stadium.

“I’m a huge Yankees fan, so it was awesome to actually meet him,” Santiago said. “It just happened. I had no clue he was here, and now I’m glad I came.”

Gooden, often referred to as “Doc,” played on three World Series championship teams, most notably the 1986 “Miracle Mets,” who defeated the Boston Red Sox in a thrilling seven-game series.

“It was a lot of fun, that team,” Gooden said. “A lot of the guys we won with, we started together in the minor leagues. We had a lot of chemistry on and off the field, and it was just a great time.”

Playing on the East Coast nearly his entire career, Gooden relished the opportunity to meet with fans across the country.

“You meet fans here you never really got to talk to,” he said. “It’s nice to interact with them because when you’re playing, it’s really tough to spend the time.”

Friday, April 16, 2010

Racers going all out to win for recovering team owner

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, April 16, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

The world seems right again for Ken Black Racing teammates Greg Anderson and Jason Line.

Back in Las Vegas, where the KB Racing team has seen its fair share of success, the duo is feeling more comfortable than ever heading into this weekend’s NHRA Nationals, thanks to an appearance by their team owner, Ken Black.

On Dec. 7, Black suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body and kept him from doing what he loves the most, being at the racetrack.

A native Las Vegan, Black was temporarily released from the hospital earlier this week so he could spend time with the racers.

“We’ve missed him terribly,” Anderson said Thursday afternoon. “Seeing him and knowing he’s here, it’s been the closest to having a comfortable feeling.”

“It’s absolutely killing him that he can’t be out at the track,” Anderson said. “This is his full-time hobby; it’s his baby, and winning something like this would certainly help his recovery.”

A victory for Anderson is certainly within the realm of possibility. He has six Pro Stock wins at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, more than any driver in the different series.

With the KB Racing team since its infancy in 2002, when the team finished in third place, Anderson won the next four NHRA Indy Nationals championships and hasn’t finished outside of the top two since.

But with Black’s condition, which the driver said is quickly improving, this weekend’s race brings more motivation to a team that considers Las Vegas its hometown and LVMS its home track.

“Seeing Ken yesterday for the first time since getting sick, it was a great way to start off the weekend,” Line said. “We love coming to Vegas. We’ve done well in the past and, hopefully, it will continue.”

Heading into the weekend, Line and Anderson sit in third and fourth place, respectively, in the Pro Stock series, chasing Mike Edwards, who has a commanding 192-point lead in the standings.

“When you’re behind, you make changes you maybe shouldn’t make,” Anderson said. “We can’t overreact.”

And for a man who has 60 national event wins, the second-highest among active Pro Stock racers, and has a 73 percent success rate in elimination rounds, he’d like to take the checkered flag this weekend more than ever before.

“Without a doubt, I want to win this race more than any other in my career,” Anderson said about winning it for Black. “He puts the fun into it and he’s why we do it.”

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Wranglers end season with 5-1 loss to Utah in playoff elimination game

By Anthony Fenech

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 | 10:57 p.m.

It was a season of momentum.

From the drop of the first puck last fall, the Las Vegas Wranglers endured many twists and turns to their season.

They started in a swoon, picked up their play near midseason and ended with a flurry of wins, vaulting them into the ECHL playoffs.

But on Tuesday night in Utah, during the second period in the deciding game of the National Conference quarterfinals, the Wranglers momentum changed for good.

Down three goals, the Wranglers appeared to get in the scoring column as a puck squirted past Utah goaltender Mikko Koskinen.

But the goal light never illuminated, the tally was waved off and defenseman Chris Frank was whistled for cross-checking.

“That was the momentum swing,” Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “It was a bad call. It was unfortunate, and I’m disappointed with the way I responded to it and how the team responded to it.”

Utah scored on the ensuing power play. Nine seconds later, the lead was four goals and the Wranglers had finally sunk, losing to the Grizzlies in an elimination game, 5-1.

“It definitely stings and it will for a long time,” Wranglers captain Chris Neiszner said. “I don’t know what else to say.”

Las Vegas fell behind early, trailing by a goal at the first intermission before allowing two goals in the first four minutes of the second period.

“We knew from the start of the series that we were playing an offensive team,” Neiszner said. “Tonight, their offense came through when ours didn’t.”

Grizzlies left-winger Ryan Kinasewich opened the scoring in the first period, but it was his second goal and Utah’s fourth of the game that was in question by Mougenel afterward.

“This is not a clear-cut game,” Mougenel said. “I make mistakes, players make mistakes and referees make mistakes.”

“But I thought it was the wrong call,” he said. “The goal light never went on and the whistle should have blown before the penalty call.”

What could have given the Wranglers a ray of hope instead shut the door on a comeback, but following protocol, the team didn’t give in.

“We were playing for our lives on every shift,” Neiszner said. “With the character that we have, the score didn’t matter.

“Unfortunately, they got some bounces and we had to press harder. When you do that, sometimes you make some mistakes defensively.”

Jimmy Spratt, whose hot play down the stretch of the regular season helped Las Vegas secure a playoff berth, stopped 32 of 37 Utah shots.

Las Vegas recorded 39 shots in the defeat and Mick Lawrence netted a power-play goal at the 8:45 mark of the third period, assisted by Jason Krischuk and Jerry Pollastrone, to avoid the shutout.

“This definitely isn’t how you want to end the season,” Mougenel said. “But I do know one thing: I’m extremely proud of these guys. They have endured a lot, and it was a tough kind of season in a lot of different ways.”

Three stars: 1. Utah’s A.J. Perry (goal, three assists); 2. Utah’s Mikko Koskinen (38 saves); 3. Utah’s Ryan Kinasewich (two goals).

First finished: On his first season as coach, Mougenel said, “I learned a lot about myself as a coach. I’m extremely proud of the type of people and team that we built. If you look at how we grew as a group from beginning to end, we were a different team.”

Up next: Utah will advance to play the Idaho Steelheads in the National Conference semifinals.

Final word: “We believed we could win,” said Neiszner. “But we showed what we were capable of this season, and I’m proud of this group.”

Top prospect Buster Posey in town to face Las Vegas 51s

By Anthony Fenech

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

Buster Posey emerged from the visitor's dugout at Cashman Field on Monday afternoon and immediately spotted a familiar face on the field.

"Roh-ney!" shouted the San Francisco Giants prospect, before exchanging pleasantries with Las Vegas 51s manager Dan Rohn.

Posey, a 23-year-old catcher for the Fresno Grizzlies, is playing in Las Vegas for the second time in his professional career. This time around, he will be the big bat that opposes Rohn, rather than the big bat at his disposal.

"He's a tough kid," said Rohn, who managed Posey for a brief time last season with Fresno. "I see a kid that's a competitor, that doesn't do too much and plays to his abilities. He's a fun kid to watch."

Posey, the fifth overall pick in the 2008 draft out of Florida State, is entering his third professional season. He is widely considered one of baseball's top prospects.

"I'm definitely excited," Posey said. "You always look forward to the beginning of the season. Spring training starts to be a lull so now everybody is excited and cranked up."

Posey and the Grizzlies began a three-game series against the 51s Monday night, dropping the first game, 7-1, as Posey went 0-for-3 with a walk. The teams will also play at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.

Posey was optioned to Triple-A Fresno on April 3 after hitting .321 with a .453 slugging percentage in spring training.

But with Giants veteran catcher Bengie Molina under contract, starting the season in Triple-A wasn't a surprise.

"As far as expectations," Posey said, "I'm just trying to take it one day at a time and continue to improve. And I'm looking to improve everything, most importantly my defense and then I'll worry about the offense after that."

Last season Posey hit .326 with 13 home runs in high-A before getting called up to Rohn's Fresno squad, where he batted .321.

His effort in the minors earned him a September call-up to the big-league club, where, despite hitting lightly, he learned heavily thanks to Molina.

"Learning from Bengie has been great," he said. "He's been doing it for a long time and he's one of the best in the game. Being able to pick his brain and watch how he goes about his business is good."

And Sept. 25, against the Chicago Cubs, Posey was thrown in as battery mate of two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum.

"It was a treat," he said of catching Lincecum. "The first couple of times catching him there was an adjustment period. I've never caught anybody like him before, the ball just explodes out of his hand."

Fresno hitting coach Ken Joyce, who spent last season with the 51s, is delighted to work with Posey.

"He's a professional hitter," said Joyce, "But the biggest thing I've seen out of him so far this year is that his pitch selection is much better. His approach has been good though, and we're looking for big things from him."

And while most of Posey's prowess comes at the plate, the catcher knows he will have to earn his stripes defensively before jumping to the next level.

"As a catcher, my No. 1 priority is going to be getting the most out of each pitcher every night," he said. "First and foremost is defense."

Rohn raved about Posey's ability to hit fastballs from gap-to-gap with power and said the defensive confidence would come with more consistent playing time behind the plate.

"They could probably take him up there now and he'd do a fine job," he said.

For the next few days, Rohn can only hope.

Wranglers ready for series-deciding game at Utah

By Anthony Fenech

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers will be looking to extend their season Tuesday night.

After 72 games of regular-season hockey and four playoff games, the Wranglers will battle the host Utah Grizzlies in the series-deciding fifth game of the National Conference quarterfinals for the right to keep playing in the 2010 ECHL playoffs.

"It's time to leave it all on the ice," Las Vegas coach Ryan Mougenel said. "I'm excited. With the kind of character we have in that dressing room, you have to be."

The Wranglers and Grizzlies have flip-flopped the first four games of the series, with each team winning a game in their own building and one on the road, setting up Tuesday's series-deciding Game 5 at the E-Center in West Valley City, Utah. The Wranglers had a 2-1 lead in the third quarter Sunday, but Utah rallied for a 4-2 victory to even the series and force the deciding game.

"It's the quote, 'Play every shift like it's your last,'" Wranglers captain Chris Neiszner said. "You have to go out, compete and do things the same way you always have."

Both Neiszner and Mougenel have competed in their shares of series-deciding games, where each minute is more magnified, each call more criticized and every play second-guessed.

"Anything can happen in a game like this," Mougenel said. "You can't worry about what you can't control. There will be lucky bounces and there will be bad bounces, you just need to stay focused."

Mougenel, part of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies team that won the 2003 Kelly Cup Championship, has played in multiple series-deciding games, dating back to the Ontario Hockey League as a youngster.

"We have a good base with good players," he said. "And we have a strong belief about what we can accomplish."

As always, the goaltender matchup will be key, most likely pitting rookie Jimmy Spratt against Utah's Mike Morrison.

In two of the series' four games, Morrison has relieved starting goaltender Mikko Koskinen, and Morrison was the goalie of record in Utah's 4-2 Game 4 win.

"We've been through it before," Neiszner said of the Las Vegas franchise, noting series-deciding games with Stockton and Bakersfield last year. "We need to embrace it and at the same time, go out and put it on the line for 60 minutes."

Monday, April 12, 2010

Utah tops Wranglers in playoff game, forces Game 5

By Anthony Fenech

Monday, April 12, 2010 | 12:01 a.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers have been playing important hockey games for several weeks.

In last place with their backs against the wall halfway through the season, the Wranglers have played playoff hockey night-in and night-out just to get to the ECHL Playoffs.

But now, they will be playing for their season.

“We’ve played like this the whole year,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “Am I confident? 100 percent.”

Sunday afternoon in Utah, the Wranglers dropped Game 4 of the National Conference quarterfinals to the Grizzlies, 4-2, setting up a series-deciding Game 5 on Tuesday night.

“It’s not a time to panic,” Mougenel said. “It’s a time to believe in each other and believe in how good we can be.”

Two third-period goals by Utah erased a one-goal Las Vegas lead heading into the final frame.

Grizzlies defenseman Brian Kilburg scored at the 6:47 mark of the period to tie the game at two.

Forward Tim Crowder then followed up Kilburg’s goal by netting the game-winner about four minutes later.

“We just tried to hold on maybe a little too much,” Wranglers captain Chris Neiszner said. “We needed to keep going after them. They have a lot of skill and they’re going to score. Unfortunately, it came in the third period.”

Neiszner put the Wranglers ahead early, scoring on the first shift of the game, 13 seconds in, assisted by Greg Collins.

The goal was the center’s third of the series.

But Utah responded after Las Vegas was whistled for a delay of game near the midway point of the period, when Lance Galbraith scored a power-play goal with 10:01 remaining in the period.

“We missed some assignments on the line rush,” Mougenel said. “It’s something we take a certain pride in, it’s something that we can definitely rectify before Tuesday and get back to where we need to be.”

Ryan Weston would give the Wranglers their second lead of the game late in the first period on a goal assisted by Barry Goers. The game remained 2-1 through a scoreless second period.

Wranglers goaltender Jimmy Spratt stopped 21 of 24 shots and Utah goalie Mike Morrison, just a night after filling in for the starting Mikko Koskinen for the second time in the series, stopped 32 of 34 shots for the victory.

“We weren’t collectively on the same page tonight,” Mougenel said. “But we know where we have to be at to be successful, it was a hard fought game and we’re looking forward to the finale.”

The two teams meet in Game 5 on Tuesday evening at the E-Center in West Valley City, Utah.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Wranglers respond at key moments to down Utah, 6-3

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, April 10, 2010 | 11:59 p.m.

After Saturday night’s 6-3 victory over the Utah Grizzlies in Game 3 of the National Conference quarterfinals, Las Vegas Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel talked about responding.

“The playoffs is all about responding and which team responds the quickest,” Mougenel said.

“There were a lot of significant points tonight where the guys responded, and that’s how to win in the playoffs,” he said.

Left-winger Ned Lukacevic responded late in the second period, scoring his second goal of the game as the Grizzlies tried to mount a comeback.

Captain Chris Neiszner responded in the third period as Las Vegas led by two, blocking a pair of point-blank shots.

And if the Wranglers can respond tomorrow to their series-leading victory tonight, they will be heading to the second round of the conference playoffs.

“It was a big win,” Mougenel said. “The guys bought in and played the type of hockey they needed to be successful.”

Las Vegas wasted no time playing that type of hockey, scoring three goals in the final 10 minutes of the first period to take a healthy lead into the break.

ECHL Player of the Month Adam Miller scored his first goal of the playoffs, followed by the second postseason tallies from Josh Prudden and Neiszner.

Miller’s goal came as Utah’s Brock Wilson sat in the penalty box after an elbowing call. Prudden’s was of the shorthanded variety, assisted by Lukacevic and defenseman Jason Krischuk.

“Any time you can score the first goal, it’s huge,” Mougenel said. “The guys did a great job of understanding how important it was to get off to a good start.”

The Wranglers didn’t slow down after the intermission, as Lukacevic scored his first playoff goal 4:47 into the second period to give Las Vegas a commanding 4-0 lead.

Lukacevic recorded four points on the night, scoring twice and adding two assists.

Utah then cut Las Vegas’ two-goal lead in half midway through the second period, as defenseman Matt Sorteberg and left-winger Ryan Kinasewich scored.

Kinasewich’s goal came shorthanded and gave the Grizzlies momentum inside the E-Center.

But with time winding down in the second frame, Lukacevic scored on the power play, assisted by Miller and defenseman Craig Switzer.

“Sometimes it’s as easy as committing to as simple a game plan as possible,” Mougenel said. “And that’s what they did.”

The Wranglers played Utah tough defensively, allowing just 14 shots the first two periods, something Mougenel attributes not only to solid defensive play but also back-checking of the forwards.

“Part of having a good defensive game is having forwards that commit to playing below the goal line,” he said. “As good as the defense was, I thought it was even more about our transitional game.”

Goaltender Jimmy Spratt won his second consecutive playoff game, stopping 22 of 25 shots for the victory.

Three Wranglers — Lukacevic, Miller and right-winger Alex Bourret — recorded multiple points.

Bourret scored a third-period goal that extended the Wranglers’ lead to three for the third time in the game.

Las Vegas has an opportunity to eliminate the Grizzlies at 3:05 p.m. Sunday in West Valley City, Utah.

“We’re going to approach it the same way we have before,“ Mougenel said. “By playing one period at a time.”

Friday, April 9, 2010

Major league veteran a mentor for younger 51s player

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, April 9, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

Jeremy Reed is entering his ninth year of playing professional baseball.

During his career, he’s played outfield in the American League and first base in the National League.

This season, he will be playing the role of leader in the Pacific Coast League, as one in a stable of veterans to help guide the Las Vegas 51s.

The 51s opened their season on Thursday at Cashman Field with a 2-0 victory against the Salt Lake Bees.

“Hopefully I can spread some knowledge to the young guys,” Reed said. “Baseball is a game of adjustments and a game of learning.”

Reed is a 28-year-old outfielder who comes to the 51s from the New York Mets. He played 126 games with the Mets last season, hitting .242 while playing four different positions.

This spring, Reed was one of the last men phased out of the Blue Jays roster despite finishing fifth in the American League with a .431 batting average.

“My spring was great,” he said. “I felt like I did everything I could to make the team. It came down to a numbers thing and that was that. I can’t complain about where I’m at or how I’ve performed.”

Reed was a second-round pick of the Chicago White Sox in 2002 and was a key piece in a June 2004 trade that sent Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Freddy Garcia to the White Sox.

After hitting just under .400 in limited time as a September call-up that season, Reed received nearly 500 at-bats worth of playing time the following season. For his career, he is a .255 hitter and averaged just under 49 runs per MLB season.

Now, for perhaps the first time in his career, he will serve as one of the veterans on a team, and 51s manager Dan Rohn plans on using his solid bat near the middle of the batting order.

“He brings a definite stability to both the ballclub and the clubhouse,” Rohn said. “He’s a guy that’s got six-plus years in the big leagues and he knows what he needs to do.”

And Reed knows what he can do, based on his past experiences.

“Last year was a learning experience for me,” he said. “I learned a lot from the players there, and it made me a better player. New York is one of those places that if you can play there, you can play anywhere.”

If Reed continues his hot hitting into the regular season, he might quickly find himself playing in Toronto.

“I’ve learned to understand that baseball is a business,” he said. “But hopefully I won’t be here very long, and I’ll get back to where I expect to be.”

Rohn said Reed will begin the season in right field but will most likely mix in some starts in center field and hit fifth or sixth in the lineup.

His influence outside of the lineup, however, can already be seen at Cashman Field.

“There’s a few guys here that have already started asking questions,” Reed said. “I’ll do anything I can to help.”

And his manager will enjoy Reed’s help while it lasts.

“He’s going to be a big influence on the young guys,” Rohn said. “The guys that haven’t really had a taste at it are the guys he’ll help.”

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wranglers drop playoff game, series even at 1-1

By Anthony Fenech

Wednesday, April 7, 2010 | 10:51 p.m.

What began as a best-of-five series between the Las Vegas Wranglers and the Utah Grizzlies is now a best-of-three series.

Wednesday night at the Orleans Arena, Utah evened the National Conference quarterfinal series at one game apiece with a 4-1 victory.

“I wouldn’t say that our effort wasn’t there tonight,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “But our execution definitely wasn’t. We got away from what we do to be successful and that’s being as detailed as possible.”

Three unanswered Grizzlies goals propelled a bounce-back game out of goaltender Mikko Koskinen, who stopped 33 of the Wranglers’ 34 shots.

“If you get into a shooting game with that much skill, you’re not going to come out on top,” said Mougenel, noting Utah’s ability to create traffic in front of Las Vegas goalie Jimmy Spratt.

That, combined with the lack of traffic in front of Koskinen, contributed to the series split that Utah will take home for the weekend.

A short-handed goal by Utah’s James Sixsmith late in the first period proved to be the deciding goal.

As the Wranglers began a two-minute power play after a roughing call to Peter Vandermeer, Sixsmith took possession of the puck near center ice and found himself one-on-one with Spratt.

Faking a shot, Sixsmith snuck a backhand between Spratt’s pads for Utah’s first lead of the game at the 14:24 mark of the first period.

“It’s frustrating when you go up 1-0 and have a chance to take a stranglehold on the series,” left-winger Ned Lukacevic said. “But we knew it was going to be a tough series and thus far it has been.”

A.J. Perry and Tim Crowder each afforded the Grizzlies insurance in the third period, scoring to put the game out of reach.

Perry scored with just under four minutes played in the period, jamming the puck into the net from beside Spratt, and Crowder notched an empty-net goal from just past the blue line with 1:51 remaining.

After the game, Lukacevic, who recorded nine of Las Vegas’ 34 shots, optimistically looked ahead to the weekend.

“We know we have a team in here that can win on the road,” he said. “We have a team that is built for the playoffs and we’re excited for the challenge.”

The scene now shifts to the E-Center in West Valley City, Utah, for the remainder of the series, where the Wranglers will need to take two out of three to keep their season alive.

“You’re going to have to win on the road,” Mougenel said. “We’ll let this one sting a little bit and then get in the right frame of mind. We didn’t think we’d go through the playoffs 16-0.”

Playing in Utah hasn’t been friendly to the Wranglers, who have lost six out of seven games on the road, going 1-5-1 at the E-Center, but their last contest in Utah was back in February.

“That means nothing to me,” Mougenel said. “I don’t think about that, it’s the regular season. We’re not the same team we were in the regular season and neither are they. It’s a new season, we’re 0-0 there and we’ll approach it like that.”

Three stars: 1. Utah’s Mikko Koskinen (33 saves); 2. Utah’s James Sixsmith (Game-winning goal); 3. Kyle Hagel (Goal)

Miller’s month: Adam Miller was named ECHL Player of the Month on Wednesday, tallying 28 points in March. The center scored 12 goals, added 16 assists and recorded a point in 14 consecutive games, stretching deep into the month.

Hot Hagel: The Wranglers forward opened Game 2’s scoring with his third goal of the series and recorded four shots in the loss. Playing between Las Vegas and AHL San Antonio, Hagel recorded seven goals in the regular season.

Up next: Game 3 at Utah, on Saturday night at 6:05 p.m.

Final word: “It’s just one battle,” Mougenel said. “It isn’t the end of the war.”

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wranglers down Utah 6-4 in first game of playoffs

By Anthony Fenech

Tuesday, April 6, 2010 | 11:47 p.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers offense answered the bell.

Down a pair of goals early in the second period, with momentum and Game 1 of the National Conference quarterfinals against the Utah Grizzlies slipping away, the Wranglers made a series-opening statement.

“The key was how we responded when we were scored against,” Las Vegas head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “We talked about it before the series, about situations like that and how important it is to respond to a goal.”

Forward Kyle Hagel and captain Chris Neiszner scored just 11 seconds apart to tie the game, and Las Vegas added two more in the second period for four unassisted goals as the Wranglers took the first game of the series, 6-4, defeating the Grizzlies on home ice.

“We responded the right way and that was the difference,” Mougenel said.

The second period started the same as the first, with a tie score leading to a quick Utah goal.

Grizzlies defenseman Tim Maxwell scored just 20 seconds into the period, assisted by forward James Sixsmith and left-winger Dylan Hunter. That score was followed by a Tim Crowder goal just 1:23 later.

But the two-goal lead didn’t deter the Wranglers. Hagel responded with an unassisted goal on a wrist shot that beat the left pad of Utah goalie Mikko Koskinen.

“We had to crank it up a little bit, kick it into a higher gear so we could get back in the game,” Hagel said.

The goal was set up by a Neiszner back-check near center ice, creating a turnover that landed on Hagel’s stick.

“It was an awesome back-check,” Hagel said of Neiszner’s play.

Neiszner then joined the act, tying the game 11 seconds later as he chipped in a goal that eluded the glove of Koskinen.

The back-to-back goals signaled a shift in momentum, and the Wranglers weren’t finished.

Hagel scored his second goal of the period with 10:05 on the clock, pushing a rebound in traffic underneath Koskinen. Center Josh Prudden extended the lead to two by roofing a breakaway wrist shot past the Grizzlies goalie to finish his night.

Koskinen was relieved by Mike Morrison, who stopped eight of nine shots and two penalty shots, one each awarded to Alex Bourret and Andrew Orpik.

“The offense was awesome tonight,” Wranglers goaltender Jimmy Spratt said. “When your team gives you six goals to work with, you should come out with the win most of the time.”

Spratt made 17 saves on 21 shots in his first ECHL playoff game.

Utah’s patience wore thin as the game moved along, irked with penalty calls and a goal that was called back in the third period.

Early in the period and on the power play, a point shot was deflected past Spratt for a goal. But it was immediately waved off for a high-stick by official Andy Thiessen.

The Grizzlies were penalized 10 times, and left-winger Lance Galbraith was whistled for two misconducts in the third.

Forward Ryan Weston scored midway through the third period on a breakaway to increase Las Vegas’ lead to three, and Utah’s Maxwell scored his second of the game 1:14 later to put a wrap on the scoring.

“They’re going to come at us hard,” Hagel said about Wednesday night’s Game 2. “They won’t roll over whatsoever. We have to have a better effort tomorrow because we don’t want to go back to square one being tied.”

Three stars: 1. Kyle Hagel (two goals, assist); 2. Ryan Weston (goal); 3. Utah’s Tim Maxwell (two goals).

Quick goals: Utah scored with less than a minute played in the first two periods. Malcom MacMillan scored 35 seconds into the first, and Maxwell scored his first just 20 seconds into the second period.

Attendance report: The 1,882 in attendance at the Orleans Arena was the lowest of the season.

Up next: Game 2 at the Orleans Arena on Wednesday night.

Final word: “We don’t want to be going to their rink in the hole,” Hagel said.

Wranglers host Utah to open playoffs

By Anthony Fenech

Tuesday, April 6, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

Tonight, when the Utah Grizzlies open the first round of the ECHL Playoffs at the Orleans Arena, they might have a hard time recognizing their opponents.

That’s because the Las Vegas Wranglers are a much different team compared to the last time the two met on the first day of February.

“We’re a different team and they’re a different team,” Las Vegas coach Ryan Mougenel said. “It’s almost the same thing.”

The Pacific Division rivals have played 14 times this season.

Utah has won 10 of those games, but eight of those wins came before Thanksgiving, when the Wranglers were playing their worst hockey of the season.

“We struggled against them at the start,” Las Vegas captain Chris Neiszner said. “But after playing them a lot, you get familiar with them and I think we improved pretty well.”

Since last meeting Feb. 1, Las Vegas has gone 16-10-3 down the stretch and gained 36 points.

“I think playing our type of hockey and dictating the pace will help in playing them,” Mougenel said. “We’re a team that pushes the pace and a tough team to contain at times.”

And to see some of the changes, look no further than the Wranglers' 23-man postseason roster, which was finalized Monday.

The team will feature seven new faces, including a new goaltender in Jimmy Spratt, and is welcoming three players from the AHL in addition to the return of left-winger Ned Lukacevic.

“Anytime you can get help, it’s nice,” Neiszner said. “But with any lineup we can get, we’re going to put in what gives us the best opportunity to win.”

Forward Matt Watkins and defenseman Nick Ross were both added to the playoff roster, meaning they are eligible to return from the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL.

Watkins played in 14 games for the Wranglers, scoring 11 points before getting called up to San Antonio in November. He has 21 points in 47 games from San Antonio.

“I just don’t have an idea when they’re going to come up,” Mougenel said. “They’re finishing the season in San Antonio. Do I want them? I do. But I also like our team right now and how everything is rolling.”

Ross played seven games with the Wranglers before heading to the Rampage, where he played in 46 games.

Also joining the team is Rampage backup goaltender Miika Wiikman.

Utah is responsible for one of the lowlights of the 2009-10 Wranglers season, dropping Las Vegas in five straight games between Nov. 13 and Nov. 22, including four straight at home.

The five losses were part of a season-high seven-game losing streak.

With the advantage in seeding, Utah elected to take home-ice advantage in the series, opening in Las Vegas but ending the series with three games at home.

“You always want home ice advantage,” Neiszner said. “But we have to look at not having it as a positive. If we can get an early jump on them, with our great fan support, it would be a huge bonus for us.”

Both coaches should be familiar with one another, with Mougenel and Grizzlies head coach Kevin Colley having played together on the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies 2003 Kelly Cup Championship team.

Left-wingers A.J. Perry and Ryan Kinasewich lead Utah with 21 and 20 points, respectively, against Las Vegas, and forward Andrew Orpik and center Adam Miller each have 10 points against the Grizzlies.

“They’re a really offensive team,” Neiszner said. “But playing in the playoffs is a whole new level. We’ve played important games that have got us where we are today.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Wranglers end regular season with 7-1 loss to Ontario

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, April 3, 2010 | 11:43 p.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers and Ontario Reign played each other for roughly 20 percent of the 2009-10 season.

For the first 18 percent of those games, Las Vegas earned a point, failing to lose in regulation to Ontario in 13 games.

But it’s the final 1.4 percent that will possibly keep the Wranglers from getting home-ice advantage in the opening round of the ECHL playoffs.

Saturday night, in their 14th meeting of the season, the Reign defeated the Wranglers, 7-1, in a game that eliminated Las Vegas’ option to play the first two games or the final three games of the first round at home.

“To give up seven goals is disappointing,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said.

“We knew we needed a win,” he said. “You have to go into the opponent’s building and win one anyway. We’re up for the challenge.”

Three first-period goals by Ontario put the Wranglers in an early hole, which they couldn’t climb out of.

Defenseman Colten Teubert scored his first professional goal nearly seven minutes in to open the scoring for Ontario.

Teubert was the 13th overall pick of the Los Angeles Kings in the 2008 NHL Entry draft.

His goal was assisted by Chris Curran and followed up by back-to-back goals from right-winger Geoff Walker and forward Greg Hogeboom.

Hogeboom’s goal was his 32nd of the season. It came on a deflected point shot from Teubert that eluded Wranglers goalie Joel Gistedt.

Ontario defenseman Mike Egener added a goal in the second period on a blast from the point, and the Reign added three goals in the third period, including the professional firsts of centers Jordan Nolan and C.J. Stretch.

Chad Starling capped Ontario’s night by scoring his first goal of the season with 1:01 left on the clock.

Center Justin Bernhardt scored the only Las Vegas goal of the night, a slap shot that found the five-hole of Reign goalie Mike Zacharias.

“I’m extremely proud of the way the team has responded all year,” Mougenel said. “Obviously, this isn’t the way you want to end the season, but we’re coming off two very emotional wins and we’ll chalk it up to that.”

Captain Chris Neiszner, defenseman Craig Switzer and center Josh Prudden were all healthy scratches for Las Vegas.

Three stars: 1. Ontario’s Mike Zacharias (27 saves); 2. Ontario’s Geoff Walker (goal, two assists); 3. Colten Teubert (goal, assist).

Super save: Down four goals with just under 12 minutes to play, a sprawling John Schwarz denied Hogeboom an open net. After faking a point-blank slap shot, the Ontario forward deked Gistedt, only to be denied by Schwarz.

Injury report: Center Adam Miller and right-winger Alex Bourret were injured in the second period and did not return for the third period. “They’re fine,” Mougenel said of the injured players.

Playoff schedule: The Wranglers are slated to begin postseason play on Tuesday, at home against the Utah Grizzlies. Game 2 will be on Wednesday.

Attendance report: The Wranglers drew 5,394 fans at the Orleans Arena in the series finale, their fourth highest total of the season. This season’s average attendance of 4,350 ranks 12th in the league.

Final word: “The 72 exhibition games are done,” Mougenel said. “Now, the real season starts.”

Playoff-bound Wranglers pick up another win

By Anthony Fenech

Saturday, April 3, 2010 | 12:33 a.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers weren’t tested on Friday night.

Just a day after clinching a National Conference playoff berth, leaving the Ontario Reign to hope for help to get into the postseason, the Wranglers cruised to a 2-1 victory at the Orleans Arena.

“For me, tonight was a must win,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “Anytime you’re at home, it’s real important you start playing hockey.”

“For a team like Ontario, to play that hard in the third period says a lot about the character of their team.”

The loss, coupled with a 9-2 win by the Victoria Salmon Kings over the Utah Grizzlies, eliminates the Reign from playoff contention.

“We played really well today,” Wranglers goaltender Joel Gistedt said. “Guys played well in front of me. I saw pretty much every shot.”

Las Vegas scored two first-period goals for all the offense Gistedt needed. He stopped 25 of 26 shots for the win.

Forward Ryan Weston scored 1:50 into the game on a slap shot from the right wing that beat Ontario goalie Curtis Darling top-shelf glove side.

The goal was assisted by forward Jerry Pollastrone and defenseman Jason Krischuk. It was Weston’s sixth of the season.

Defenseman Barry Goers then doubled the Wranglers’ lead with 1:57 left to play in the period, scoring on a rebound in front of the net for his second goal in a Las Vegas uniform.

He scored after Mick Lawrence, from behind the Ontario net, fed the puck out in front.

Alex Bourret misfired on the first shot, but Goers was there to clean up the rebound for the goal.

“I saw an opening going into the slot,” he said. “Mick made a good play to Bourret and I just picked up the rebound and flipped it into the net.”

The goal proved to be the game-winner. At the end of the first period, the Wranglers had out-shot the Reign 14-3.

“It’s been exciting,” Goers said of his short time in Las Vegas. “I’m happy to be helping the team.

“The adjustment has gone smooth. The pro game tends to be more controlled than the college game, but I definitely like it.”

Goers is fresh off his senior season at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, and Mougenel expects him to be on the Las Vegas playoff roster.

Ontario’s Michael Pelech scored halfway through the third period to give the Reign their only goal of the contest.

Pelech’s goal deflected behind Gistedt after hitting a Wranglers player in front of the net.

“I’ll be honest,” Mougenel said. “I didn’t like us from the second period on. I thought we were great in the first period. Things were clicking. But our work ethic from our best players wasn’t where it needed to be.”

The Wranglers out-shot the Reign 34-26 for the game, and each team went 0-3 on the power play.

Las Vegas’ first-round opponent has yet to be determined. The Wranglers are in sixth place in the National Conference and will match up with the No. 3 seed.

Three stars: 1. Joel Gistedt (25 saves); 2. Barry Goers (game-winning goal); 3. Ryan Weston (goal).

Roster report: Forward Kyle Hagel was returned from the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL. Hagel recorded one shot in the game.

One and done: Thursday night’s hero, Ned Lukacevic, who had a hat trick in the playoff-clinching series opener, was loaned to the Texas Stars.

Up next: Fan Appreciation Day at 7:05 p.m. Saturday against the Reign at the Orleans Arena.

Final word: “I want to win,” Mougenel said of the series finale.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Wranglers lock up playoff berth with win over Ontario

By Anthony Fenech

Friday, April 2, 2010 | 2:14 a.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers are headed to the ECHL playoffs.

Thursday night, in front of 4,149 fans at the Orleans Arena, the Wranglers clinched a playoff berth against the hard-charging Ontario Reign with a 5-2 victory.

“I’m real proud of the guys,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “They did an amazing job to get into the playoffs. I’m just extremely proud of all of them.”

Las Vegas left-winger Ned Lukacevic, in only his second game back with the team after a stint in the AHL, recorded a hat trick. He paced the Wranglers offense by scoring in each period.

“It feels good,” Lukacevic said. “It’s great to play with less pressure this weekend.”

The Wranglers welcomed Ontario to town with a two-point lead in the National Conference standings and needed just a regulation win to punch their playoff ticket.

The lead now stands at four points, and for the remainder of the three-game series, Las Vegas will look to improve their playoff seeding while the Reign look for help from other teams to get into the postseason.

“We want to win,” Mougenel said. “Nobody got into this business to lose. We’re a team that’s going to go for it.”

Tied at two goals apiece with less than a minute to go in the second period, the Wranglers blew their first chance for a lead on a three-man breakaway, when Alex Bourret couldn’t connect with Mick Lawrence for a one-timer in front of Ontario goaltender Curtis Darling.

But seconds later, Lukacevic picked up where Bourret left off, scoring on a one-timer from fellow AHL assignee Ryan Weston with less than a second left on the clock.

“That was the turning point,” Lukacevic said. “It definitely gave us a good feeling going into the third.”

Lukacevic scored his third goal of the game halfway through the third period by speeding into the Ontario zone, steering clear of a Reign defenseman, controlling the puck with just his right hand and flipping it over the left shoulder of Darling.

For his efforts, he was awarded with a face-first trip into the net, courtesy of a Reign player who leveled him after the shot.

“I wasn’t too worried about him,” he said. “I just wanted to put the puck in the net and luckily it went in. I’ll take it any way I can.”

After holding Ontario scoreless in the third period, Andrew Orpik found an empty net with 48 seconds to seal the victory.

“We deserved to win tonight,” Lukacevic said. “For the most part, we won the battles and Jimmy (Spratt) kept us in it.”

Spratt stopped 26 of 28 shots in the game, his first against Ontario this season.

“If you take a look back at part of the winter, I was sitting on my couch,” Spratt said.

“And if you would have told me then that at this important part of the year I’d be playing for a team that’s trying to get into the playoffs in this league, I would have said you were lying.”

Reign center Tim Kraus scored a pair of goals in the first period to equalize Adam Miller’s 33rd goal of the season and Lukacevic’s 26th, respectively.

The Wranglers scored three power-play goals in ten opportunities for their sixth playoff appearance in seven years.

“There were times we struggled this year and times I didn’t think we had the right personnel,” Mougenel said. “But I truly believe in character and the type of people we have in that room.”

Three stars: 1. Ned Lukacevic (hat trick); 2. Jimmy Spratt (26 saves); 3. Adam Miller (goal, assist).

Adam’s accolades: On Thursday, Miller was named second-team All-ECHL. He ranks fourth in the league with 52 assists and fifth with 84 points overall.

Team player: Lukacevic said he streamed all Wranglers games over the Internet while playing with the Providence Bruins. “They were still a big part of me,” he said. “They did well without me and now we have three lines going. Hopefully we’ll be dangerous for the playoffs.”

Up next: Two more games against Ontario to close out the regular season.

Final word: “We all bought in tonight,” Mougenel said.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Wranglers face Reign for final playoff spot

By Anthony Fenech

Thursday, April 1, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.

Ryan Mougenel needed a moment.

It was late Dec. 18, minutes after the Wranglers dropped their fourth consecutive game in heartbreak fashion to the Ontario Reign, and the first-year head coach stood alone, next to a brick wall, hundreds of yards behind the team bus.

At the time, Las Vegas was struggling, losers in 11 of their last 14 games, dwelling in the cellar of the ECHL Pacific Division.

Three months later, Mougenel is getting his moment.

Tonight, the Wranglers welcome the Reign to the Orleans Arena for a three-game series to close out the regular season, with hopes of punching the last playoff ticket in the National Conference.

Las Vegas holds a two-point lead over Ontario for the National Conference’s seventh and final playoff spot.

“We’re amped up,” Mougenel said Wednesday. “It’s been a long regular season...This will be two teams really battling for something.”

The Wranglers and the Reign have battled for 11 games this season.

Of those 11 games, five have gone into overtime and of those five overtime games, four were decided in a shootout, including all three games in a memorable series in the beginning of March.

“This isn’t the same team we’ve played before,” Mougenel said. “They’re playing well and we’re playing well.”

Head-to-head this season, the Wranglers have a 8-0-1-2 record against Ontario’s 3-6-0-2 record, accumulating 19 points to the Reign’s 8 points in games this season.

But Mougenel is quick to dismiss any kind of confident edge the home team may carry.

“I don’t think so at all,” he said. “Very rarely are you playing the same team you did last time. They have made some improvements. We have improved, and there’s a lot more at stake.”

Reign defenseman David Walker has seen his team grow since the last time the two teams met.

“We’re definitely excited,” he said. “I think both teams know these are the three biggest games of the season.”

Walker has seven points against the Wranglers this season.

“Ever since that series with Las Vegas, our team has been playing that intense, playoff type of hockey,” Walker said. “Both of us want to be playing each other. It’s kind of like a storybook thing; we couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”

A trio of Las Vegas roster changers is sure to factor in the series, most notably the addition of Ned Lukacevic from AHL Providence.

Lukacevic leads the team against Ontario with nine goals and nine assists.

“We need him to play the same way he usually does,” Mougenel said. “He’s a good player, not only at this level but he’s been good all year for us.”

On Friday, forward Ryan Weston was assigned from AHL San Antonio.

“He’s another boost to our lineup,” Mougenel said. “He gives us a sense of reliability and accountability.”

The most important roster change, however, will be in goal. Either Joel Gistedt or Jimmy Spratt will get the call in light of Michael Ouzas being placed on the 21-day injured reserve for a foot injury.

In eight games against Ontario, Ouzas was 6-0-1-1 with a 2.50 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.

“It’s frustrating,” Ouzas said about watching the series from the bench. “I want to be able to contribute to the team and be part of our success.”

Mougenel said the choice of goalie will be a game-time decision, but Ouzas shared some insight on what the starter might see from Ontario.

“We have to play a very detailed game,” Ouzas said. “They’re a great defensive team and they like to slow things down, wait for us to make a mistake and pounce on it.”

“The only way you can have success against them is by working hard.”

And while Ouzas is chomping at the bit to get back onto the ice, he said neither of the two goalies needs his advice on beating Ontario.

“I haven’t said too much,” he said. “Both guys are playing well and I don’t want to mess up what they’re thinking. If they can keep up what they’ve been doing, we’ll be fine.”

The Wranglers are also returning to the friendly confines of the Orleans Arena, where they have played significantly better this season than on the road.

In the season series between Ontario and Las Vegas, the home team has won six out of seven games. But Mougenel emphasizes whichever team wins will do so because of what happens on the ice.

“It’s hockey; it’s sport. I think the guys are excited. I think Ontario’s excited. It should be a good weekend. We’ll see how she goes.”