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Wranglers need sharp goalie play … again

Martin Houle isn’t worried. He’s a hockey goalie, which means he’s big on communication with defensemen like Paula Abdul is big on appearing … confused.

Houle also approaches his craft in a simple manner: “You stop the puck,” he said, “and the rest takes care of itself.”

I also hear Houle takes things one slap shot at a time and never thinks past the next shift and believes every defeat is about not getting enough good bounces.

The Wranglers have been here before, a team that navigates itself through the early part of a schedule unsure where it sits at goalie. It has read the script and played the role flawlessly.

Take last season. Over the first month, injuries and call-ups meant six names wore the Hannibal Lecter mask for Las Vegas. It worked out to the point the Wranglers finished two wins from their first Kelly Cup title.

It always seems to work out.

The way things appeared Thursday night, it could take much longer this time.

Houle was more ordinary than outstanding in a 4-2 loss to Ontario in a home opener before 5,019 at the Orleans Arena, meaning the Wranglers are three games into their pursuit of a fourth straight 100-point season without a victory.

That’s never happened in the six years of the Las Vegas franchise, which doesn’t mean much when you realize this is hockey and they’ll still be contesting regular-season games when the Phillies and Rays begin playing next season.

It also doesn’t mean Glen Gulutzan is a coach and general manager without concern.

His teams annually have produced excellent goalie play — NHL and American Hockey League rosters reiterate that point this season — but usually have come with just as capable a zone defense.

Nothing guarantees that this time. Nothing ensures Gulutzan won’t look much older than his 37 years as the season draws on and the other guys who roam untouched near the crease convert more and more chances as Ontario did with a hungrier and more aggressive approach.

Gulutzan has won with a young defense before — the Wranglers had five rookies in such spots three years ago and compiled 112 points — but those who skated Thursday didn’t closely resemble dependable defensemen.

Unless your definition of dependable is soft and confused, which Las Vegas was for the opening 20 minutes before settling into a more protective unit the final two periods.

“I can tell you our goalies are going to have to be better than years past, that’s for sure, no question about it,” Gulutzan said. “We’re going to keep working on our defensive game and hope we’ll see a big improvement in the team the second part of the season to the first.

“There is going to be a learning curve. Hopefully, our veteran guys will help us stay competitive as we work with the younger guys daily to make them better. Over time, you hope they grow more mature and confident.”

Gulutzan’s world becomes more frustrating when young defensive players take risks to combat a small mistake and end up making a bigger one. His is not a system that creates many one-on-one chances for the opposition, but some are bound to occur.

That’s when the basics become paramount for rookies like Michael Beynon and Bret Tyler and Jim Jorgensen, when things like better stick handling and proper positioning could mean the difference between clearing from your zone and a complete breakdown.

“We have to work on the kids being better,” Gulutzan said.

The same can be said for Houle, who wasn’t overly impressive Thursday night for a player hoping an opportunity here eventually returns him to the level (AHL) he spent large parts of the last three seasons. He was OK and nothing more.

John DeCaro also has to prove as promising as advertised when he arrived a former Central Hockey League star goalie who injured his hamstring in the season opener but who could return next week.

The Wranglers at times Thursday played as dumb as they did poorly, with stupid penalties costing them chances and awarding Ontario ones it then converted. But three games in a hockey season is 100 feet in a marathon. It’s nothing.

That learning curve Gulutzan speaks of will stretch longer this season. That part is obvious. The good news for Las Vegas is, it has been here before. It knows which passageways lead to success.

I’m not sure the Wranglers will play the role as flawlessly again, but the thought of it won’t overwhelm them. It’s a start.

Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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