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Halfway There

wranglers May 1, 2012 0

After a hard-fought 60 minutes of hockey Sunday night in Alaska, the Wranglers found themselves marred in an overtime struggle with the reigning Kelly Cup champs.

Less than four minutes later, the Wranglers were piled up against the glass, hands pointed to the rafters, celebrating Eric Lampe’s wrister which snuck past the outstretched arms of a diving Gerald Coleman.

Ball. Game.

With the win, Las Vegas took a 2-1 series lead, and found themselves two victories away from their first Kelly Cup Finals berth since 2007-08. They found themselves halfway there.

What Went Right:

Top line in top form: After dominating every inch of the ice in the first-round sweep of the Utah Grizzlies – combining on five of the teams’ six total goals – Las Vegas’ top scoring line of Eric Lampe, Adam Miller and Judd Blackwater seemed to hit a bit of a rut against Jerry Kuhn and the Steelheads.

Through the first three games against Idaho, the Three Horsemen had combined for just two points, limited by the Steelheads’ tenacious D and terrific goaltending. Despite getting things going late in the Idaho series, including Lampe’s overtime winner that clinched a trip to the Western Conference Finals, the trio again ran into similar problems in Games 1 and 2 against the Aces.

“Problems” being a term used very loosely here. Normally, struggling means -5, -6 ratings for everyone on the line. For this line – this talented of a line – struggling means mustering 15 shots a game – a great total for a normal line, but not the usual barrage of 28 were used to seeing from Lampe and Co.

See, the thing with this line is, when these guys are clicking, you can tell – everyone can tell. My dog can tell. You’ll look up at the ice, it’ll be 0-0, you’ll bend down to take a drink, look back up and it’s 7-0 as Eric Lampe breaks another franchise record. Their 75 percent is better than a whole lot of guys’ 100 percent, which is why head coach Ryan Mougenel and everyone else expects so much out of them. Because when they’re rolling, there’s not a team in this league that can stop them.

Alaska realized exactly what that’s like in Game 3, where Las Vegas’ top line threw off the training wheels and skated circles around Alaska’s defense, peppering Gerald Coleman with shot after shot and beating him twice – Blackwater once from the left circle, and Lampe again from the exact same spot on the right side, which ended the game.

The difference? A host of things – motivation, tenacity and just downright grit to name a few. But another big difference is the ice size. The transition to Alaska’s Olympic-sized rink paid huge dividends for the Wranglers’ top line, and might be just what the doctor ordered. They were able to use their speed even more so than usual, spreading out Alaska’s defense, and slashing through the middle once the Aces get too wide.

Just think – practice makes perfect, right? So, with two goals and a win in their first game in Alaska’s house…what’s going to happen by Games 4 and 5?

What Went Wrong:

Gerald Coleman: For all of you out there that thought Gerald Coleman wouldn’t be the same after getting pulled in Game 2 against Las Vegas, you were right…because he was better. Much, much better.

It’s like poking a grizzly bear with a stick. Once it wakes up, you better be ready. And in Game 3, Coleman woke up in a big way, making kick save after glove save and reminding us all why he’s spent nearly 100 games in the AHL – and a few in the NHL.

Just ask Josh Lunden, who had a sure-fire game-winner with five minutes left in regulation until Gerald Coleman’s magic stick appeared between his legs like something out of Spiderman 2.

Look – Coleman’s a really good goalie. Like, really good. He’s a lot like Jerry Kuhn – athletic, reactionary, skilled. Except he’s also seven inches taller, standing at 6’5” in the net, as opposed to 5’10”. That makes him much, much tougher to beat up high, and also a lot longer when he stretches out…like he did last night, numerous times, holding what could have been a 5-2, 6-2 blowout to a 2-2 tie.

Fortunately, Las Vegas has the weapons necessary for beating a goalie like Coleman, just like they did last night, and did a series ago against Jerry Kuhn. But Coleman is far from done. In fact, he’s just getting warmed up. And the Wranglers better keep their foot on the gas pedal, because a goalie like him isn’t just good enough to steal a game or two – he’s good enough to steal a whole series.

What It All Means:

Big time momentum shift: After losing Game 1 on home ice, the Aces had taken whatever momentum the Wranglers had from their dominating 7-1 postseason run and thrown it out the window. But in responding with a 3-0 statement win in Game 2, and snatching Game 3 right out from under Alaska on their home ice, Las Vegas has grabbed that momentum back – and in a big way.

Alaska isn’t up against the ropes by any means. Still, a lot of hockey left to be played. But the fact remains, in order to win this series, the Aces must take three of the remaining four games from Las Vegas, a tall task even for the reigning ECHL champions.

Even more so, what it means for the Wranglers is this – with just one more win in Alaska, the boys in black and white guarantee one of two things: either the series is coming back to Las Vegas for a Game 7…or it ends in Alaska.

Either way, it’s a good thing for Las Vegas. Sure, a Game 7 wouldn’t exactly be ideal, because anything can happen in a one-game series. But at least it’s at home. And as for Las Vegas ending the series in Alaska? Well, I don’t have to explain to you what that means.

What You Can Expect:

That the Aces aren’t done: Far from it. They’re going to put up a huge fight in Game 4. Big time. Like, making Mike Tyson look like a playground bully.

But, you can also expect the Wranglers to be ready. They answered the bell in a huge way in Game 2. That was as close as you can get to having a “must win” game that early on in a series. Not only did they answer the bell, they carried it right over into Alaska, taking a road game away from the best home squad in the ECHL.

All they need is one more to guarantee another game here in Vegas.

Or two more to guarantee a Kelly Cup Finals berth.

Both are more than possible, especially if the Wranglers play their game the rest of the way. It’s going to be tough in Game 4. The Aces are going to come out hard, especially on their home ice. But Las Vegas needs to stick to their game plan – be physical, move the puck, spread Alaska wide, and slice them once they get too thin.

It worked in Game 3. And whatever Mougenel said to the team before Game 2 worked then as well.

Sunday night, the success of that plan led the Wranglers to a dog-pile against Alaska’s glass, celebrating a dramatic, emotional victory.

If they keep this up, it won’t be the last one.

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