It's not unusual for a coach of an ousted playoff team to suddenly label the conquering team as one that is going to win the championship.
So it wasn't surprising that Victoria coach Mark Morrison essentially called the Alaska Aces unbeatable after they eliminated his team in five games in the ECHL West Division finals May 2.
It might've been a bigger headline if Alaska wasn't the top remaining seed of the 16 playoff teams (No. 2 overall), but Morrison made his point.
Now the Aces are the Wranglers' problem, starting tonight in the National Conference finals at Anchorage. Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-7 series are today and Sunday, with Games 3, 4 and 5 on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at the Orleans Arena.
"I will say this: Any team can be beat. There's no team out there that's unbeatable," Las Vegas coach Glen Gulutzan said. "But you have to execute, play well and have things go your way.
"We're going into this series as the underdog, but we feel as a group it's going to be a heck of a series."
Las Vegas, which won seven-game series against Bakersfield and Stockton to reach the conference finals, was 3-6-1 against Alaska during the regular season and 1-3-1 on the road, where they are 2-2-2 in the playoffs.
The Aces, who beat Utah in five games in the first round, are 4-0 in the playoffs at home, where they have notched three shutouts and outscored opponents 15-2.
For the Wranglers to upset Alaska, repeat as conference champions and return to the Kelly Cup Finals, Gulutzan said they must at least split the first two games at Anchorage.
"We've got to get one up there, for sure, to have any hope of winning the series," he said. "And it would be nice to get it sooner than later."
The well-rounded Aces are led by rookie goalie Jean-Philippe Lamoureux, who set a league record with eight shutouts in the regular season and was voted league Most Valuable Player. He has continued his stellar play in the postseason, with an 8-2 record, a league-best three shutouts, a 1.89 goals-against average and .942 save percentage.
"He didn't win MVP of the league for no reason," Gulutzan said. "He's very good, and we certainly have to try to get to him."
One edge the Wranglers might have is the fact they haven't played the Aces with their full roster, which now includes former American Hockey League players such as defenseman Dan Spang.
Spang, who has almost single-handedly lifted Las Vegas' power play from worst in the league to first, is tied with center Dan Riedel for the team lead in scoring with 14 points.
"Getting all our players back at once from the AHL, I really wouldn't want to play (us)," Gulutzan said. "(The Aces) haven't really seen this team, so that will be a different look for them."
Alaska, playing in the conference finals for the fourth time in five years, features several players who have won the Kelly Cup.
Colin Hemingway leads the league in playoff scoring with 19 points in 10 games. Josh Soares has 16 points and Cam Keith 14.
In 2006, Keith scored the winning goal for Alaska in its series-clinching, triple-overtime victory over Las Vegas in the division finals.
The teams met again in the second round last year, when the Wranglers beat the Aces in five games.
But this is the first time the rivals will meet with so much at stake.
"This is going to be a test to see what kind of team we've got," Las Vegas center Tyler Mosienko said.
WRANGLERS VS. ACES
• WHAT: Game 1, ECHL National Conference finals
• WHEN: 8:15 p.m. today
• WHERE: Sullivan Arena, Anchorage
• RADIO: Internet broadcast available on www.lasvegaswranglers.com
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.