Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012 | 11:10 p.m.
There's no denying Chris Francis cares about the Las Vegas Wranglers. It's his hometown team, and he'll do everything he can to help them succeed.
So when his coach, Ryan Mougenel, issued a challenge to the team to prove they cared, Francis, naturally, was one of the first people to step up.
Francis scored two goals, and goalie Mitch O'Keefe came up big when it mattered to help Las Vegas to a 4-3 shootout victory over the Stockton Thunder on Saturday inside the Orleans Arena.
"Chris Francis has arguably been our best player," Mougenel said. "Franny is a special kid. I have a soft spot for Franny. He's someone we should all be proud of. I think he can be a real good player at the next level."
The victory comes 24 hours after a dismal performance against the Idaho Steelheads that left everyone in the Wranglers (8-10-0-3) locker room with a bitter taste. The loss prompted the players to come together and address a few things.
"It was pretty depressing last night," said O'Keefe, who made 41 saves on 44 shot attempts. "We had a good talk together, and we realized how hard it was to get to the finals last year. Everyone realizes that we have the same team."
Whether or not the team turns the corner will be answered in the next 51 games, but if Saturday was any indication, the sluggish starts that have plagued the Wranglers might be a thing of the past.
The Wranglers came out of the gate with a fury and energy that hasn't been seen thus far. The strong start catapulted Las Vegas to only its fifth first goal of the year when Francis scored off of an Andrew Sarauer pass, despite being down a man.
It was Francis' eighth goal of the season.
"We were sick of bad starts and finally waking up in the late second and third period," Francis said. "Their guy wasn't honoring my speed, so I went behind him. It was a simple goal to get behind the net."
The Thunder (13-5-2-2) weren't deterred. They came up with a goal of their own in the second period.
Nolan Julseth-White was called for a double-minor penalty for high sticking, giving the Thunder a two-man advantage.
The Thunder pelted O'Keefe with myriad shots over the course of the four minutes. Eventually, Stockton scored when Harrison Reed beat O'Keefe for the Thunder's first goal with eight seconds remaining on the power play.
"That was a tough battle," O'Keefe said. "It was too bad we gave up a goal with eight seconds left. We showed character and battled back, and we should try and move forward with that."
Stockton got the lead 138 seconds later on another power-play chance when Eric Hunter scored to give the Thunder a 2-1 lead.
The lead held until the 8:41 mark of the third period when the Wranglers had their own 5-on-3 advantage.
After Francis took a shot, Judd Blackwater rebounded the puck and sent it to Josh Godfrey. Godfrey, who is known for his booming shot, passed up a shot attempt, giving the puck to Francis.
Francis wasted little time sending the puck into the net for his second goal of the night.
"Their goalie was challenging out pretty far, so I knew once I got it I was going to fire it in right away," Francis said. "I'm glad he gave it to me and it worked out."
The Wranglers, who have struggled on their power plays this season, got another power-play goal 57 seconds later, when Scott Campbell redirected a Charlie Cook shot into the net.
Unfortunately, Julseth-White got called for another double-minor penalty. When compounded with a Jamie Fritsch delay of game penalty, it opened the door for the Thunder to get back into the game.
The Thunder evened up the game at the 13:09 mark when Justin Maylan scored, sending the game into overtime.
After going scoreless in the five-minute extra period, the teams entered a shootout. The Thunder led early, scoring on both their attempts while Las Vegas failed to convert on their tries.
Then, after Judd Blackwater found the net, O'Keefe settled down, stopping the next four shots and helping the Wranglers pick up the victory after Andrew Sarauer and Eric Lampe scored on their tries.
"They were all deking," O'Keefe said of the final saves. "I tried to stay with the puck and try not to overcommit and try not to make the first move."
Added Mougenel: "He's a battler. He really came across and really wanted that win. I'm proud of him. He was really good."
Three Stars: 1. Chris Francis, Las Vegas (two goals), 2. Mitch O'Keefe, Las Vegas (41 saves), 3. Scott Campbell, Las Vegas (one goal).
Up Next: The Wranglers are off until Tuesday, when they open up a two-game road set against the Colorado Eagles.
Final Word: "It had nothing to do with what I say or what I did. It was the guys taking it upon themselves." — Las Vegas coach Ryan Mougenel on his team playing one of its better games against the Thunder.
The Orleans Arena, a Boyd Gaming facility located just west of the Las Vegas Strip, is one of the nation’s leading mid-sized arenas, and was recently ranked No. 1 in the United States and No. 5 internationally among venues of similar size by Venues Today Magazine.
The Arena hosts more than 200 events each year, including concerts by top names like Carrie Underwood, Daughtry, Van Halen, Brooks & Dunn, Black Eyed Peas, Akon and Rihanna; family favorites like The Harlem Globetrotters and Circus Spectacular; and a wide variety of sporting events, including NCAA basketball tournaments, the West Coast Conference and Western Athletic Conference Basketball Championships, mixed martial arts with Superior Cage Combat, and major motorsports events.
The arena serves as home to the Las Vegas Wranglers professional ECHL hockey team, the Las Vegas Legends professional indoor soccer team, and the Lingerie Football League’s Las Vegas Sin. Stay connected to the Orleans Arena on Facebook (www.facebook.com/orleansarena) and on Twitter (@orleansarena).