The Wranglers are coming off an incredible regular season in which they won their first Pacific Division title and closed out the campaign with a franchise-record 13-game winning streak to earn the best record in the ECHL, and the top seed and home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
But none of that will matter at 7:11 tonight, when Las Vegas takes the ice at Phoenix to open its best-of-7 National Conference quarterfinal series against the Roadrunners.
“It’s nice to know we’ll have home-ice (advantage) for the rest of the playoffs,” Wranglers second-leading scorer Steve Crampton said. “It’s a big accomplishment, but in the end it doesn’t mean too much. Now the real games start. We’ve got our eyes on the prize now.”
The Wranglers (46-12-14, 106 points) edged defending ECHL Kelly Cup champion Alaska by one point to capture the Brabham Cup, which is awarded to the regular-season champion, a year after the Aces beat Las Vegas by one point, then eliminated it from the playoffs with a triple-overtime win in Game 6 of their series.
The Wranglers are trying to join the 2006 Aces and 1997 South Carolina Stingrays as the only teams in league history to win the Brabham Cup and Kelly Cup in the same season.
“We have as good a chance as anyone else to have success in the playoffs,” Wranglers coach Glen Gulutzan said. “It’s a grind and it’s who wants it more come playoff time.”
Although Las Vegas earned home-ice advantage, it will play its first two games at Phoenix tonight and Thursday due to ice availability issues, before returning home to the Orleans Arena for the next four games, if necessary.
“That doesn’t bother me at all. We’ve got to play two on the road regardless,” Gulutzan said. “We’ve got to win on the road to win in the playoffs.”
The Wranglers went 22-5-9 on the road this season, including a 4-0-1 mark at Phoenix, and they went 6-2-1 against the Roadrunners overall.
A victory tonight by Las Vegas would equal the longest winning streak in ECHL history, but Gulutzan said he could care less.
“That’s not important at all,” he said. “We’re just trying to get a split in Phoenix and that’s what we’re looking for.”
While teams typically need to raise their intensity level for the playoffs, the Wranglers have been in postseason form for a while as they battled Alaska for the No. 1 seed.
“We’ve been playing playoff hockey here the last six games, so we don’t need to change much. We’re just approaching this as game 73,” Gulutzan said. “We’ve just got to play solid hockey. We have to play solid defensively and it’s going to be a physical series, so we’ll have to make sure we’re ready in that department.”
The Roadrunners, 15-19-2 at home and 27-40-5 overall, limped into the postseason, going 5-22-3 in their last 30 games.
Phoenix coach Ron Filion resigned on March 22 and assistant Brad Church took over as interim head coach.
The Roadrunners are led by Justin Aikins (57 points) and Brock Hooton (42), with Cody Rudkowsky (10-22-2, 3.49 goals-against average) in net.
“We’re going to have to be perfect to beat them,” Church said. “We’re going to have to play mistake-free hockey and we’re going to have to take advantage of these two (home) games, because playing four in a row at Las Vegas will be tough.”
Derek Edwardson is the Wranglers’ scoring leader, with 69 points, Crampton has 62 and Mike McKenna (27-4-7) leads the league with a 2.21 GAA and a .927 save percentage.
“We’re playing our best hockey and it’s the perfect time to be doing that,” Crampton said. “We seem to be peaking at the right time.”Las Vegas WranglersMore