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.”

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