Tuesday, April 6, 2010

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.

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