Glen Gulutzan threw the question out there, maybe hoping for some magical reply, maybe thinking there was a part of the equation he was missing, maybe just needing to hear a fresh viewpoint on how best to assure hockey playoff life beyond the second round.
“His advice was not to change one thing, that you don’t have to wear a Superman cape to win a championship,” Gulutzan said. “Just play good, solid hockey.”
It would be thought boring if not so accurate.
Case in point: Wranglers 8, Alaska Whiners zip.
Gulutzan’s chat with a fellow coach this week who has won multiple championships reaffirmed a common belief in sports: The minute successful teams panic in the playoffs and begin modifying how they typically approach a game, they’re done.
Las Vegas shouldn’t alter much of anything from how it played Friday night.
For a team that desperately needed to make a statement about how past playoff failures wouldn’t influence this current’s group pursuit of a championship, its rout of some chirpy and infantile Aces was emphatic.
I’m not exactly sure how Alaska players spent their 12 days off since sweeping a first-round series, but wiping their noses might be a good guess. They totaled 25 penalties for 88 minutes Friday, more than half coming after the second period, when the score was getting silly and the game was long decided and the Aces simply couldn’t take their beating and move on to tonight’s Game 2 without making one scene after another. They managed to make fighting look dull.
Eight is the most goals Las Vegas has scored in a home game all season, and the margin of victory was the team’s largest in its playoff history. It’s as good a result as the Wranglers could have hoped for in late April, given the disappointment of recent endings.
This has been the time of year when Wranglers fans (a faction that seems to annually decrease once a season’s most important games commence) watch with one eye closed and expect the worse.
Makes sense. Las Vegas has followed 100-point seasons with second-round playoff exits each of the last two seasons and went out in the first round four years ago.
The Wranglers haven’t exactly been a sure thing when it comes to turning six months of dominance into deep postseason runs. Their playoff promises have proven emptier than all those unoccupied seats at the Orleans Arena on Friday, when a crowd of 3,575 showed. The Kelly Cup to this point has been as much a reality as UNLV football being bowl-eligible beyond October.
But things can be different each season given the reality of ECHL rosters. They continually change, so much that only two Wranglers (forwards Shawn Limpright and Marco Peluso) remain from a 2006 playoff loss to Alaska, so much that the memory of such stumbles doesn’t register all that clearly with many players. That’s a good thing.
“Our guys don’t look back because a lot of them were playing college hockey or somewhere else,” Gulutzan said. “The coaching staff remembers. The media remembers. The front office remembers. But as an organization, we look forward to these opportunities. Sometimes, you have to throw a Hail Mary to win. We don’t. We just have to play good hockey.”
They have to do what any winning playoff team does at any level. They have to get a bounce here or there, which Las Vegas did on two goals Friday. They have to receive solid goaltending, which rookie Kevin Lalande offered in stopping all 20 Alaska shots. They have to remain relatively healthy, meaning the Wranglers can’t lose any more than the three key bodies currently out nursing injuries.
They have to force themselves not to look in their lockers for red capes.
“You know, you always ponder the past a little, but this is a whole new team,” said Peluso, who assisted on two scores. “I think we have something special. Hockey is a crazy game. You always enter any series believing you should win, but there is no dominant team that’s going to run through this thing. Everyone is pretty solid. Whoever comes together at the right time …”
The Wranglers came together Friday, made a statement and at the same time brought out the worst in Alaska. It’s a start but not a guarantee, considering Las Vegas also won the series opener against the Aces in 2006. That score was 5-0, which I gather means one thing:
Beware of humiliated whiners from the frigid northwest.
Ed Graney’s column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.