After losing only twice during a dominant playoff run to the ECHL Kelly Cup Finals last year, the Wranglers find themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Trailing Stockton 2-0 in its best-of-7 Western Conference quarterfinal, Las Vegas will have to fight for its playoff life just to get out of the first round.
The defending conference champion Wranglers host the Thunder at 7:05 p.m. today in Game 3 at Orleans Arena — with Games 4 and, if necessary, Game 5, scheduled for 7:05 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We’re not panicking at all,” Las Vegas center Chris Francis said. “We’ve shown we can play with these guys and dominate them at certain times. We’ve just got to stick to our game plan for 60 minutes. We’re all pretty confident we can do it.”
Seven of eight regular-season meetings between the fifth-seeded Wranglers and fourth-seeded Thunder were decided by one goal, and so were the first two playoff games, each won 3-2 in overtime by Stockton.
Las Vegas, which didn’t trail in regulation in either game, blew a 2-0 third-period lead in Game 1 and squandered leads of 1-0 and 2-1 in Game 2.
“There were certain times that we let up and got away from the things that give us success,” Francis said. “We’ve got to make sure we play the same way the whole 60 minutes and not let up and give them a chance.”
Francis, a local product who was the Wranglers’ fifth-leading scorer with 48 points (21 goals, 27 assists), is scoreless in the series, while points leader Andrew Sarauer and goals leader Eric Lampe each were limited to an assist.
Defensemen Matt Campanale (goal, assist) and Mike Madill (two assists) lead Las Vegas with two points apiece, and Geoff Paukovich, Scott Pitt and Judd Blackwater each have a goal.
“Judd Blackwater has been carrying the load,” coach Ryan Mougenel said. “We need Chris Francis and Eric Lampe to be better. I’ve challenged them.
“Collectively, we all need to be better, from the goaltending out, but I tell you what, we’ve battled. It’s just been a mistake here and there. We’re one bounce away from being back in it.”
Francis welcomes the challenge to contribute more.
“For us to be successful, we need everyone to be going (hard) all night,” he said. “We just need a couple bounces. It’s going to be a long series.”
The Wranglers, who went 20-15-1 at home, have won three straight and five of their last six at Orleans Arena, where they took two of three regular-season meetings from the Thunder.
“Stockton hasn’t won anything yet,” Cook said. “They’re on the road now, and it’s hard to win on the road.
“We’re excited to play in front of our fans. The next three games we can turn things around and shift the pressure to them.”
Heading into three playoff games in three nights — and a potential seven in 10 days — the series may be won by the team with the most endurance.
“It’s going to be a grind,” Cook said. “The schedule is not forgiving. It’s going to be who can hold up.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354.