Fast-starting Wranglers need to finish race

This is how sports go sometimes. A team has one of those made-for-the-ages regular seasons (maybe even two straight) but can’t duplicate its success in the playoffs. It underachieves at the worst possible time. It’s all flash for six months and all fizz when winning matters most over a seven-game series.

Then it gets to start over again, trying not to worry about the end result rather than all it takes to accomplish it. That’s often the toughest part, not thinking about April when you’re playing in November. It’s a hazardous mind-set the Wranglers don’t need.

“To lose how we have in (the playoffs) the last few years is really disappointing,” Wranglers left wing Shawn Limpright said. “But that’s the way it goes.

“That’s hockey.”

It’s no longer good enough.

The Wranglers have passed into that harsh but distinct reality where 100-point seasons are an unacceptable level of achievement if they are going to continue being followed by second-round playoff exits.

Being eliminated by the eventual Kelly Cup champion once might reduce the sting. Having it happen three of the last four years gets old.

But that is where things stand for the team that on Saturday night beat Utah 5-1 at the Orleans Arena, that impressively responded to arguably its worst home effort in franchise history on Friday.

That’s the challenge for a team that has produced consecutive seasons of 112 and 106 points.

Do more. Advance further. Finish the race.

“We don’t want our guys worrying about the past,” coach Glen Gulutzan said. “We don’t want to compare teams, but we want them to know the bar has been set here. We’ll throw out things about (the past) to dig at them a little, that if they want to be successful, these are the things you do.

“It’s easier to sell your program when you have won. The new guys seem to really buy into that.”

The new guys. It’s a recurring theme at this level, one that makes the Wranglers’ regular-season numbers even more notable and yet nearly impossible to use as any sort of reliable gauge for future teams.

ECHL rosters change like you do socks. The Wranglers last year returned 12 bodies from the previous season. They return seven this year, and only two — Limpright and wing Marco Peluso — have been around for both.

What it means: Lon Kruger certainly is the best head coach of any sport locally, but Gulutzan stands a close second. He now has 116 wins since 2005-06 while annually mixing different spices to the recipe, while not benefiting from the kind of constant steadiness afforded higher professional levels with long-term contracts.

Now, the formula changes again. He needs to discover how to keep it from expiring too soon.

The Wranglers two years ago had everything champions own, from camaraderie to strength to power to speed to character. The Wranglers last year were good enough to win 18 straight at one point but not terrific to the stage they could play poorly and still expect to succeed.

The Wranglers of Friday’s 8-5 loss and Saturday’s comfortable win don’t blow you away at anything yet. They’re good and have managed a 5-2 start. They’ll get better. They’ll find goaltending depth and sharpen their power play and penalty-killing numbers, which have lacked early.

They’ll make the playoffs and would prefer home ice, although it’s not as if that meant anything last year. They’ll put themselves in position to make a run at a title again.

Which isn’t enough anymore.

“Getting to 100 points two straight years is really good, but not getting past the second round those seasons is definitely in the back of our minds,” Peluso said. “It’s tough. We have proven that we’re a good hockey team, but to win a championship at any level is always the ultimate goal.

“The idea for some guys to maybe move up (levels) is a great thing, but this is where we are at now, and the (Kelly Cup) is what we want. Sure, we can look back and say, ‘Wow, we’ve had a few great teams here and couldn’t get it done.’

“But then you have to bite your tongue and move on.”

And do better.

It’s the reality of being so good so long.

It’s the consequence of a bar being raised so high.

At some point, you need to prove capable of jumping over it.

Ed Graney’s column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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