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Kings of the Jungle

wranglers March 14, 2012 0

They were hungrier. Simple as that.

This weekend, the Wranglers wanted it more – they needed it more – and they ripped it away from Ontario like a dog on raw meat.

Or, more specifically I suppose, a “top dog” on raw meat. Because that’s exactly what Las Vegas is after the two-game sweep of the Reign in their own building – the top dog in the Pacific division once more.

Ah. Feels good to be back.

Sure, Ontario will tell you that they were without their top scorer in C.J. Stretch. And that the AHL had also claimed their starting goalie in Chris Carrozzi and one of their best wingers in J.D. Watt.

But you know what?

I love you, Ontario, I really do. But I don’t feel bad for you. Not. One. Bit.

Because along with our top scorer (Eric Lampe), our starting goalie (Joe Fallon) and our best winger (Peter MacArthur), the ever hungry and relentlessly devouring beast that we call The AHL has also taken prisoner two of our top defenders in Barry Goers and Jamie Fritsch, and another outstanding offensive talent in Scott Campbell.

Wait, was that a typo? Did my computer keys get stuck? Why so many names?

No, no. You read that correctly. Eric Lampe, Peter MacArthur, Barry Goers, Scott Campbell, Jamie Fritsch and Joe Fallon. Six. Count it out loud – six players in the AHL. And it would have been eight had Josh Lunden and Judd Blackwater not been so graciously returned to the Wranglers.

But alas, that’s the nature of the beast – a never satisfied, ever growing beast that we must feed to survive, much like what I’m told dealing with a mother-in-law is like. Factor in both Ash Goldie and Ryan Weston, who are still rehabbing on the IR, and that gives you an even 10 missing bodies from the Las Vegas lineup.

10. That’s an entire street hockey team. And a damn good one at that.

But ask yourself this: with nearly a dozen of his top skaters missing in action, the Ontario Reign nipping at his team’s heels and the Kelly Cup playoffs only a short few weeks away – how does Head Coach Ryan Mougenel respond?

By jamming his teams’ foot so hard on the gas pedal, he’s starting to push through the floor of the car. And his team is loving every minute of it.

It’s quite impressive, really. Mouge has these boys operating so smoothly, it’s almost scary. Doesn’t matter who’s in the lineup – the intensity is always the same, the drive is always the same and most importantly, the will to win is always the same.

Quite simply, that’s something that trickles down directly from the top. Working in that office every day, it’s so easy to see: Mougenel walks in each and every morning with the same attitude, the same mentality, and the same passion for the game – and that trickles right down the entire team, hitting everyone from the starting center, to the fourth line checker, to the backup stick boy.

Consider this: three weeks ago, Las Vegas was coming off a rather unimpressive home stand that saw them go 5-5-1 through the middle of February, usually one of those runs where you kind of exhale once it’s over.

But unfortunately for the Wranglers, staring them in the face after their mini-.500 stretch was a nine-game road trip that would most likely either make or break their 2012 playoff push. Exhale? Not so much.

The one comforting thought to it all was that after this grueling nine-game road trip was a nice, juicy seven-game home stand to close out the season. The only traveling the Wranglers would have to do to close out the regular season is go from the couch, to the refrigerator, and back to the couch again.

But the question was, how would they begin that March-ending home stand? Right in the thick of the Pacific division title race? A few points behind Ontario and Alaska for the Western lead? Or eight, nine points behind, needing to rip off as many wins as possible to even entertain the thought of a top seed?

How about right back in the driver’s seat of the Pacific division? How does that sound?

Pretty good actually. I’ll drink to that.

Keep in mind, this wasn’t one of your “dip the toes into the water to see how cold it is” kind of road-trip either. No, this was a “here, let’s throw you into the middle of the Alaskan Wilderness with nothing but the minimum of 13 dressed skaters, a few matches and a pair of snowshoes, and see how you make out.”

Enter Judd Blackwater, Las Vegas’ knight in shining armor over the past few weeks. To the sound of horns, drums, and applauding villagers, Blackwater rode into Alaska on his white steed to meet up with the Wranglers right when they needed it most –in the middle of a three-game weekend set with the Western Conference-leading Aces.

At least, that’s how I picture it in my head, anyway. And yes, in my head, he kind of resembles Mel Gibson circa Braveheart. Whatever. Live with it.

Either way, with Blackwater back in uniform for Las Vegas, the Wranglers were more than just competitive on Alaska’s super-sized Olympic ice – they were “two wins in three games” competitive. Not bad against a team that only had five losses at home heading into that weekend.

All in all, you probably couldn’t have asked for a better start to the trip – four of a possible six points up in Alaska, against arguably the top team in the entire ECHL.

Chalk one up for the good guys.

The next leg of the roady was a bit easier, one that took them to Idaho for a pair of games against a team that hadn’t won in eight contests.

Make that 10.

Game one was pretty much what you would have expected, as Las Vegas skated circles around the Steelheads Friday night, going on to win 5-1, peppering poor Jerry Kuhn with shot after shot until the massive pile of straws ultimately destroyed the camel’s back.

Game two however, wasn’t so simple.

It all started on Saturday morning, only a few hours after their 5-1 win, when Las Vegas found out Joe Fallon – who had posted a perfect 4-0 record and just six goals allowed in his last four starts – would be headed up to the AHL.

Ah, the double-edged beauty of the ECHL. You play well, we win. But don’t play too well, or else you’ll leave us. Joey must have never gotten that memo, as he packed his bags and jumped on the next flight to Houston.

Enter Mitch O’Keefe, who not only grabbed the reigns from Fallon, but ripped them out of Big Joe’s hands and led the Wranglers to a cake-walk of a victory on Saturday night, finishing off a sweep of the Idaho Steelheads.

Well, kind of. That’s the way it will be remembered in Wrangler folk-lore some 50 years from now. In reality though, it was a lot tougher than just another two points.

Trailing 2-0 midway through the third, O’Keefe had done everything the Wranglers had asked him to – stepped into the crease admirably on only a few hours notice, and kept Las Vegas in the game. The Wranglers’ offense? Not so much, as they’d been stoned by Jerry Kuhn for 45 minutes of hockey – the same Jerry Kuhn that slammed the playoff door in their faces only one season ago.

But as they say, revenge is a dish best served often. Las Vegas didn’t waste any time in dolling out some fresh orders to Idaho and the Kuhn-dog, as they lit the lamp not once, not twice, but three times in the final 15 minutes of hockey to catapult ahead of the Steelheads, turning a late 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 victory.

Ball. Game.

Six out of eight points in Alaska, four out of four in Idaho. Next up? An Ontario Reign team that had only lost three times in regulation since the calendar flipped over to 2012.

That was until the Wranglers marched into Ontario and put a fire hose to the Reign’s hot streak.

Game one was a physical battle – exactly what you would expect from these two teams. Eventually, it came down to a shootout; one that was ultimately settled by a Judd Blackwater triple-deke that would put SportsCenter Top 10 to shame.

Game two on the other hand, took us back to mid-November Wranglers hockey. Mitch O’Keefe was at his best in net, while his defense was white on rice all game long – swarming every Ontario attacker that dared tiptoe over the blue line. The rest was left up to the offense, which pushed four goals past JF Berube, each one prettier than the last.

4-1 final, Wranglers win. Four more points out of a possible four in Ontario. Yawn.

Wait – yawn? After all that build-up, all road-trip long, this is how it ends? A simple 1-2 knockout of the hottest team in the ECHL, one that had lost so few games in 2012 you could count them on one hand?

Yup, and you can save your victory songs for later, Las Vegas, because for the Wranglers, it’s not over. Their celebration doesn’t come after a well-done road trip, even one that encompassed three different states, over 24 hours of travel, and 12 out of a possible 14 points. Mougenel wouldn’t have it.

No – Las Vegas plans to have their flag-waving victory much later than that. More like in April or May. Or better yet, June.

Something big is in store for this Wranglers squad. The way this team is playing, with who they are missing, is really extraordinary to watch.  And normally, when a team is playing this well, you’d be worried about adding those guys back from the AHL, concerning chemistry and fluidity.

Not the case here. They were playing great before those boys left, and they’re playing great now. Whoever the ECHL and AHL give Mougenel on that lineup card come playoff time, he’s going to plug them in and drop the puck.

New signee from the NCAA to fill in for an injured Huxley? “Plug and play.”

New emergency backup goaltender since Fallon jumped up to the A? “Plug and play.”

Another skater gone to the next level? “Plug…and play.”

Plug and play. Simple as that.

Or more accurately, I suppose, “Plug and win.” Plug and dominate. Plug…and Cup.

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