Stephen Sylvanie / Special to the Sun
Friday, April 2, 2010 | 2:14 a.m.
The Las Vegas Wranglers are headed to the ECHL playoffs.
Thursday night, in front of 4,149 fans at the Orleans Arena, the Wranglers clinched a playoff berth against the hard-charging Ontario Reign with a 5-2 victory.
“I’m real proud of the guys,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “They did an amazing job to get into the playoffs. I’m just extremely proud of all of them.”
Las Vegas left-winger Ned Lukacevic, in only his second game back with the team after a stint in the AHL, recorded a hat trick. He paced the Wranglers offense by scoring in each period.
“It feels good,” Lukacevic said. “It’s great to play with less pressure this weekend.”
The Wranglers welcomed Ontario to town with a two-point lead in the National Conference standings and needed just a regulation win to punch their playoff ticket.
The lead now stands at four points, and for the remainder of the three-game series, Las Vegas will look to improve their playoff seeding while the Reign look for help from other teams to get into the postseason.
“We want to win,” Mougenel said. “Nobody got into this business to lose. We’re a team that’s going to go for it.”
Tied at two goals apiece with less than a minute to go in the second period, the Wranglers blew their first chance for a lead on a three-man breakaway, when Alex Bourret couldn’t connect with Mick Lawrence for a one-timer in front of Ontario goaltender Curtis Darling.
But seconds later, Lukacevic picked up where Bourret left off, scoring on a one-timer from fellow AHL assignee Ryan Weston with less than a second left on the clock.
“That was the turning point,” Lukacevic said. “It definitely gave us a good feeling going into the third.”
Lukacevic scored his third goal of the game halfway through the third period by speeding into the Ontario zone, steering clear of a Reign defenseman, controlling the puck with just his right hand and flipping it over the left shoulder of Darling.
For his efforts, he was awarded with a face-first trip into the net, courtesy of a Reign player who leveled him after the shot.
“I wasn’t too worried about him,” he said. “I just wanted to put the puck in the net and luckily it went in. I’ll take it any way I can.”
After holding Ontario scoreless in the third period, Andrew Orpik found an empty net with 48 seconds to seal the victory.
“We deserved to win tonight,” Lukacevic said. “For the most part, we won the battles and Jimmy (Spratt) kept us in it.”
Spratt stopped 26 of 28 shots in the game, his first against Ontario this season.
“If you take a look back at part of the winter, I was sitting on my couch,” Spratt said.
“And if you would have told me then that at this important part of the year I’d be playing for a team that’s trying to get into the playoffs in this league, I would have said you were lying.”
Reign center Tim Kraus scored a pair of goals in the first period to equalize Adam Miller’s 33rd goal of the season and Lukacevic’s 26th, respectively.
The Wranglers scored three power-play goals in ten opportunities for their sixth playoff appearance in seven years.
“There were times we struggled this year and times I didn’t think we had the right personnel,” Mougenel said. “But I truly believe in character and the type of people we have in that room.”
Three stars: 1. Ned Lukacevic (hat trick); 2. Jimmy Spratt (26 saves); 3. Adam Miller (goal, assist).
Adam’s accolades: On Thursday, Miller was named second-team All-ECHL. He ranks fourth in the league with 52 assists and fifth with 84 points overall.
Team player: Lukacevic said he streamed all Wranglers games over the Internet while playing with the Providence Bruins. “They were still a big part of me,” he said. “They did well without me and now we have three lines going. Hopefully we’ll be dangerous for the playoffs.”
Up next: Two more games against Ontario to close out the regular season.
Final word: “We all bought in tonight,” Mougenel said.