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October 30, 2014

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O’Keefe, defense lead Wranglers to victory over Reign

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STEPHEN SYLVANIE / SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mitch O’Keefe stops an Ontario Reign shot from the point during the second period of play on Tuesday night at the Orleans Arena. O’Keefe stopped 29 of 30 shots to earn a 2-1 victory over the second place Reign.

Wranglers Beat Reign

Adam Huxley drives toward the puck through Ontario Reign players during the third period on Tuesday night. Launch slideshow »

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Offense has been difficult to come by at times for the Las Vegas Wranglers.

The Wranglers are ranked in the bottom fifth of the ECHL in goals scored, averaging 2.7 goals per game, which can make winning games difficult.

But Las Vegas has won more than it lost this season, and most of it can be attributed to a strong defensive effort.

The Wranglers are ranked in the top four in goals surrendered, a number that improved after a 2-1 victory over the Pacific Division leading Ontario Reign on Tuesday inside the Orleans Arena.

“Defensively, it says a lot about us,” Las Vegas Wranglers coach Ryan Mougenel said. “We have got to have one of the lowest goals against in the league. … To me, it’s just as important as goals scored.”

Mitch O’Keefe, who started his fourth game in six nights to give his fellow goalie Joe Fallon some rest, was stellar in net. O’Keefe made 29 saves, including dramatic stops at key moments.

O’Keefe has been a hot goalie as of late, allowing just five goals in the four games (three coming in his lone loss against Utah on Saturday).

“I’m finally getting into my groove,” O’Keefe said. “Guys are playing defensive hockey right now.”

With the playoffs right around the corner, O’Keefe gives the Wranglers (36-30-5) options at the goalie position. If history has been any indication, a hot goalie — at any level — can be all the difference come the grueling playoff season.

O’Keefe and Fallon have been alternating games over the past few weeks to give Fallon rest for the postseason and O’Keefe more ice time.

Fallon, who Mougenel said carried two teams in the playoffs, is viewed widely as the No. 1, but Mougenel isn’t committing to either one of his goalies as the primary.

“We’ll see,” Mougenel said. “I liked Mitch tonight, but you never know. At this level, (either one) could be called up to the (Edmonton) Oilers tomorrow.”

Offensively, the Wranglers did enough to get by the top team in its division.

The Wranglers struck first with 35 seconds remaining in the first period when Andrew Sarauer beat Jean-Francois Berube for the Wranglers’ 30th first goal of the season.

Sean Wiles, who returned to the team after a brief stint in the American Hockey League, was awarded with the primary assist.

The Reign (45-18-3-4) evened the game in the second period when C.J. Stretch beat O’Keefe. The even tally lasted 12 minutes before Judd Blackwater scored at the 16:29 mark.

The one-goal advantage proved to be enough as O’Keefe and the defense did its job, holding back an Ontario offense ranked third in the ECHL.

“It’s a great time for us to come together,” O’Keefe said.

Three Stars: 1. Mitch O’Keefe, Las Vegas (29 saves); 2. Judd Blackwater, Las Vegas (1 goal); 3. Andrew Sarauer, Las Vegas (1 goal).

Up Next: The Las Vegas Wranglers finish the regular season Friday against the Bakersfield Condors, the only team that did not make the ECHL Western Conference playoffs.

Final Word: “It’s ridiculous. There is a serious correlation between injuries and how many games we’ve played.” — Las Vegas Wranglers coach Ryan Mougenel on the team’s brutal 18 games in 33-day stretch.

Paul Delos Santos can be reached at 990-2416 or [email protected]. Follow Paul on Twitter at twitter.com/pauliedelos.

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