Hockey is a hard enough sport to play.
Endurance, combined with physicality and multiplied by the speed of the game, makes it one of the more difficult sports to participate in at a high level. And for the Las Vegas Wranglers, it doesn’t get any easier when you’re without five players – especially when those five might be the best in the entire league.
It’s the nature of the beast here in the ECHL – the cream always floats to the top, and for us, the top means the AHL. Unfortunately for Las Vegas, the snake has bitten rather hard this past week, removing five of the ECHL’s most talented skaters from the Wrangler organization; the first three of which, all happen to be on Las Vegas’ top scoring line.
Forward Eric Lampe and his league leading 34 goals are currently nestled comfortably in Hamilton, where he’s already scored once in his first two games for the Bulldogs. Team assists leader Peter MacArthur is also off to a great start up in Lake Erie, where through four games, he already has two points (one goal, one assist). As for the third member of the Wranglers’ top line? That would be Judd Blackwater, who has been in Abbotsford since December – and while Judder has struggled at times (-12 rating through 16 games), the fact that he remains with the Heat just goes to show you his 38 points through 31 games with Las Vegas have earned him some time to work through this slump, no matter how long that takes.
But the list doesn’t stop there. The Wranglers are also currently without top defensemen Jamie Fritsch, who is in the middle of his second stint in the AHL, this time with the Houston Aeros. Factor in forward Scott Campbell, who is also making his second appearance in the AHL (one shot through one game), and you’ve got five Las Vegas skaters missing from this lineup. Five very, very talented skaters, who are no longer with the team.
Again, it’s sort of the nature of the beast in this league. No excuses about it. Another beast Mougenel and the Wranglers have to deal with, though, is the fact that now they’ve got to roll five less skaters onto the ice every night; meaning instead of the typical 16-17 they dress in black and white every game, they’ve only got 14.
What does that mean? Well, shorter shifts, more ice time, less breathers and plenty of tired legs.
Much, much more tired legs.
Just take a look at Wednesday night’s game in Utah – their first game without the trio of Lampe, Fritsch and MacArthur. Las Vegas jumped out to a 1-0 lead, and was in the midst of a hard fought 1-1 score. But Utah took advantage of Las Vegas’ thin bench, and roped off two unanswered goals in the final frame, going on to win 3-1.
So if they had tired legs on Wednesday night, what did they have this weekend? In the midst of a “three games in three days” home stand capped off by a midnight puck drop?
If your answer was “tired legs,” you’d be half correct. If you’re answer was “no legs,” you’d be more in the ballpark.
But if you also included in your answer, “Well, they still scraped out two wins in those three games,” you’d be right on the money.
See, that’s the thing about this squad. A lot of words get thrown around the room when you talk about sports teams: Grit. Guts. Heart. Mental strength. But all four of those have never applied more than to this team right now.
There’s something to be said about a squad that loses five supremely talented skaters – including their entire top line, the league leading scorer, team assists leader, and top defender – and keeps on winning.
The evidence is there – this team is gassed. Or at least, they were this past weekend. Consider this: Las Vegas used their talent – they’ve still got plenty left on this roster – to jump out to three huge leads this weekend: 3-1 on Friday, 2-0 on Saturday, and 4-1 on Sunday.
Unfortunately, because of that thin bench and lack of skaters, the Wranglers let Utah roar back in the third period each and every game. In fact, it got so bad Friday night, the Grizzlies were able to net three unanswered goals, including the game-winner with just over a minute left. 4-3 final, Grizzlies win.
On Saturday night, it was déjà-vu all over again as Utah turned a 2-0 paper bag loss into a 2-1 last second thriller; forcing Mitch O’Keefe to put on a break-dancing clinic in the crease, kicking a few last second shots out of the net to preserve a 2-1 win.
Sunday night? More of the same. Up 4-1 with the game seemingly in hand, the third period reared its ugly head once again and Utah potted a pair of goals to bring the game to 4-3 with seven minutes left. The Grizzlies threw the kitchen sink and then some at Joe Fallon and the Las Vegas defense in the final minutes, but the boys held tough, and preserved a nail-biter of a victory.
Now if you ask Ryan Mougenel, I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you he’d rather not jump out to three goal leads every night, and then close his eyes and cross his fingers as the opposing team pours out buckets of pucks on the ice and rifles them at the net as time expires.
But, I’m sure he’d also be the first to tell you, a win’s a win. And with five of his top skaters in the ECHL, thanks to the host of other talents on this team, the Wranglers just keep on chugging.
Sure, they once had a 10+ point lead in the Pacific Division. And yes, Ontario is now just two points back with four games in hand.
So what. These guys don’t care.
They’re just going to keep putting their heads down, and grinding out tough wins. Long gone are the days where they win 7-2, as Lampe and MacArthur connect on highlight-reel goals to pour free taco coupons down from the ceiling. Instead, it’s a different game of hockey; a tougher game of hockey. A game of hockey that the sport was built upon.
Just ask Robbie Smith, who threw three of the coldest knocks to the head you’ll ever see in the first of three fights in Sunday’s midnight game. Or Jeff May, who gave Grizzly forward Kory Falite a mouth full of shoulder in a hit that you’ll see replayed a hundred times before the season is over.
It means more work for Mitch O’Keefe, and even more for Joe Fallon, who grabbed his league leading 27th win last night. It also means more of an offensive load for Josh Lunden, Adam Miller and Sean Wiles, who had a hand in six of Las Vegas’ nine goals this weekend.
But the boys are just fine with that.
Picture this: Defensemen Barry Goers, Channing Boe and Michael Busto combined for four goals this weekend. Three defenders, three games, four goals.
A bit weird? Get used to it, Wrangler nation. It’s step up time – and each guy, one through 14, has their laces tied tight.
No question they’d welcome Lampe, Mac, Soupy, Jamie and the rest back with open arms, but that’s not how the game works. You can’t keep thinking, hoping and wishing guys get dropped back down to the ECHL. You’ve got to keep the eyes wide, the head down and work your way to the finish line.
I have no doubt Mougenel, Madill, Barry and the boys will steer us through the thick. This team’s got no quit in them. None. And I don’t see that changing any time soon. If this weekend’s three games were any indication of what’s to come, it’s going to be a damn fun ride. So buckle your seatbelts, Wrangler fans – it’s about to get interesting.