Last year, Wranglers defenseman Ben Parker was part of a Canisius College squad that salvaged its season down the stretch — winning eight straight games to claim its conference title and earn the school’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament, where it almost upset top-seeded Quinnipiac.
“We had a real storybook year,” Parker said. “We weren’t even picked to win a game in the playoffs, but it’s the team that gets hot.”
Las Vegas will need to embark on a similar run to upset the Alaska Aces in their ECHL Western Conference quarterfinal playoff series, which starts today at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
The best-of-7 series is a mismatch on paper, as the eighth-seeded Wranglers finished the regular season with the league’s worst record (20-44-8, 48 points) and went 2-10-1 against top-seeded Alaska, which compiled the ECHL’s best mark (45-19-7, 97) for the fourth straight year.
“At the end of the day, we’re all in the same league. There’s a lot less difference (between teams) than people think, and I believe it’s not that much,” Parker said. “It’s going to come down to effort. The team that works the hardest is going to win the series.”
While Las Vegas shouldn’t lack motivation in its bid to beat its rival — the franchises have split four playoff series in the past eight seasons, twice meeting in the conference finals — Parker and Wranglers forward Shawn Skelly will have the added incentive of trying to beat the team that dumped them earlier this year.
Parker played 41 games for the Aces before he was released, and Skelly scored five goals and had 14 points in 28 games for Alaska before he was cut. Las Vegas claimed both players off waivers.
“There’s a lot of motivation, especially playing against your old team and the coaches you’ve dealt with all year,” Parker said. “At the end of the day, they did get rid of me, so I definitely want to prove to them I can play in this league at a high level, and if we can upset them, that would be incredible.”
Skelly also played for the Aces last season, scoring seven goals and 14 points in 19 games before he was traded to Bakersfield in a deal for Anchorage native Evan Trupp — one of Alaska’s top scorers with 17 goals and 50 points.
“To be able to take them down, especially because I played for them the last year and a half, it’d be a phenomenal accomplishment for our team, and personally, it would be extremely satisfying,” Skelly said. “There’s that extra fire to play better.”
Skelly, 27, is familiar with being an underdog, playing four years for Division III Adrian College — where he scored 102 goals and 229 points in 113 games before turning pro.
“It’s obviously looked down upon right away, if a guy has never seen you play,” Skelly said of being a Division III product. “Division I guys usually get the first opportunity at everything. I just had to work a little harder than maybe some other guys had to, but it’s worked out so far.”
Parker and Skelly — who has eight goals and 15 points in 23 games for the Wranglers — were casualties of a numbers crunch when Alaska received an overflow of players from Abbotsford, its American Hockey League affiliate.
Crunching the numbers in the series, the Aces led the league in goals against average (2.31) and were second in goals for (3.42), whereas the Wranglers were last in goals for (2.42) and near the bottom in GAA (3.44).
Peter Sivak will lead Alaska, which has won its first-round playoff series in nine of the past 10 seasons. The All-ECHL first-team selection was second in the league in scoring with 83 points, including 31 goals.
The Aces feature a strong goaltending tandem in Gerald Coleman (14-6-5, 2.39 GAA) and Olivier Roy (13-7-0, 2.10), who was recently sent down from the AHL. Coleman backstopped the Aces to the 2011 ECHL Kelly Cup title, and Roy led Stockton to last year’s league finals.
Las Vegas will be led by Chad Nehring (team-high 22 goals) and Adam Hughesman (21 goals, team-high 45 points).
The Wranglers also will be bolstered by the recent addition of former Bakersfield forward Michael Neal and the return to health of several players, including forward Geoff Irwin.
“We’re finally getting healthier. All the guys are back,” Parker said. “I think we’ve got a team to be reckoned with. It’s exciting.”
Jeff May will anchor the defense in front of veteran goalie Mitch O’Keefe and rookie Travis Fullerton, who led the ECHL in saves (1,443) as Las Vegas was outshot in 61 of 72 games.
Despite the team’s struggles this season, first-year coach Mike Madill — a member of the Wranglers’ conference title teams that beat Alaska in the 2008 and 2012 playoffs en route to the Kelly Cup Finals — is optimistic about its chances against the Aces.
“Everything’s kind of going the right way for us at the right time. We’re pumped. We don’t care about the standings,” he said. “I love our chances. I love our team. I won’t make any predictions, but I just know we’re going to do a lot of damage.”
■ NOTE — Games 1 and 2 are scheduled for 8:15 p.m. PDT today and Saturday in Alaska, with Games 3 and 4 slated for 7:05 p.m. Wednesday and April 25 at Orleans Arena. Game 5, if necessary, will be April 26 in Las Vegas.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.