The playoffs. The stakes are higher, and the action is more intense as players elevate their games in their quest for a crown.
Wranglers coach Glen Gulutzan doesn’t want his players to alter their approach too much, although he’s changing his game plan this year in an effort to end a string of early playoff ousters.
"In years past, we’ve harped on this. The playoffs are a different animal and a different season, but if you think it’s too different, you’re forgetting what made you successful," said Gulutzan, who has guided the Wranglers to a 146-38-32 record (324 points) the past three regular seasons. But the Wranglers are 14-14 in the playoffs and have lost three of five series.
"I told the guys they don’t have to put capes on to win the Cup. They just all need to be solid and play loose,” Gulutzan said. "We need to have good goaltending, we need to get on a roll, and we need some puck luck."
Las Vegas, eliminated from the playoffs in the second round the past two years, went 47-13-12 (106) this year to claim its second straight top seed in the National Conference.
The first team in ECHL history to compile three consecutive 100-point seasons, the Wranglers will host the eighth-seeded Stockton Thunder (27-40-5, 59) at 7:05 p.m. today and Saturday at the Orleans Arena in the first two games of a best-of-7 series.
The Wranglers, 24-6-6 at home this year, went 4-0-0 against the Thunder in Las Vegas and 7-1-1 overall.
But, like Las Vegas and every other ECHL playoff team, Stockton will be bolstered by the return of several players from the American Hockey League.
"You’re talking about a team that’s going to get six AHL players back," Gulutzan said. "By the same token, we’ll be playing with a full deck of cards."
The Wranglers will feature nearly their full complement of players tonight, with the exception of defenseman Tyson Strachan, due back from the AHL on Monday, and center Curtis Fraser, who is to stay with San Antonio throughout the AHL playoffs.
Goalie Daniel Manzato also left the team Sunday for up to six weeks to play for Switzerland in the world championships, leaving rookie Kevin Lalande as the main man in net for Las Vegas, with rookie Tyler Sims the emergency backup.
"When you get a chance to be the one guy the coaching staff and your teammates rely on, it’s a big challenge," said Lalande, who went 17-5-4 this season and was second in the league in goals-against average (2.05) and save percentage (.932).
Lalande said Tuesday he "might have a hard time sleeping" the night before his first professional playoff start. Gulutzan also might have a hard time sleeping unless Lalande plays well.
"You need to have your goaltender win you a game you shouldn’t win (in the playoffs), and you need to have your goaltender never lose you a game you should win," he said.
Gulutzan said this season’s squad has something his other playoff teams didn’t — an element of danger.
"We have some legitimate dangerous guys that can score unpredictably," he said.
Peter Ferraro led the team in scoring with 73 points, setting a franchise record with 36 goals and finishing second in the league with eight game-winning goals.
Adam Cracknell and Tyler Mosienko scored 59 points apiece and Chris Ferraro added 51, despite missing the final 14 games of the regular season with a concussion.
He’s expected to miss the first round of the playoffs but might return for the second round.
Gulutzan said the Wranglers are one of six squads in the ECHL with a realistic chance to win the Kelly Cup.
"One of those six is going to win the championship," he said, declining to name the others. "We’re one of them, and that’s the position you want to be in every year."
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354.STOCKTON VS. LAS VEGAS WHAT: ECHL National Conference quarterfinals, Game 1 WHEN: 7:05 p.m. today WHERE: Orleans Arena REGULAR-SEASON RECORDS: Stockton 27-40-5; Las Vegas 47-13-12 SEASON SERIES: Las Vegas 7-1-1 ECHL KELLY CUP PLAYOFFS NATIONAL CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS(Best-of-7) LAS VEGAS VS. STOCKTON Records: Las Vegas, 47-13-12, 106 points, first in National Conference, first in Pacific Division; Stockton, 27-40-5, 59 points, eighth in National Conference, fourth in Pacific Division Coaches: Las Vegas, Glen Gulutzan (220-93-47 regular season, 14-14 playoffs); Stockton, Chris Cichocki (210-226-68 regular season, 5-10 playoffs) Head-to-head: Las Vegas 7-1-1 vs. Stockton this season, 16-3-1 all time; Stockton 2-7-0 vs. Las Vegas this season, 4-15-1 vs. Las Vegas all time Top goalies: Kevin Lalande (17-5-4, three shutouts, 2.05 goals-against average, .932 save percentage); Glenn Fisher (14-19-2, two SO, 3.36 GAA, .903 save pct.), Tim Boron (12-17-3, three SO, 3.08 GAA, .910 save pct.) Top scorers: Peter Ferraro, 73 points (36 goals, 37 assists), Adam Cracknell, 59 points (29-30), Tyler Mosienko, 59 points (22-37); Brandon Schwartz, 52 points (16-36), Lance Monych, 52 points (32-20); Ryan MacMurchy, 45 points (23-22) TODD DEWEY / REVIEW-JOURNAL