Sunday, March 7, 2010 | 9:52 p.m.
It took three games, three overtimes and three shootouts, but Sunday afternoon the Las Vegas Wranglers left Ontario, Calif., with what they came for: A point.
Ned Lukacevic’s goal past Ontario’s Mike Zacharias in the fourth shootout round gave the Wranglers a 4-3 win and a share of the final playoff spot in the National Conference.
“Our team weathered the storm,” head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “Our defense was awesome tonight. We did all the little things right and just played a great team game.”
“We played that team game the whole weekend,” he continued. “Shootouts can go either way, but I guess the stars were aligned for us.”
The goal brought closure to a pivotal weekend series between the two teams that featured overtime and beyond each night.
“We love winning no matter what,” captain Chris Neiszner said, “but winning like this, the hard-fought way we did at the time we did, it’s huge.”
For the third consecutive game, Las Vegas had to fight back, and did.
Friday night it was a three-goal deficit, Saturday night a two-goal deficit, but on Sunday the Wranglers erased a one-goal lead midway through the second period on Chris Neiszner’s 10th goal of the season.
About five minutes later, center Adam Miller netted an unassisted goal, his 23rd of the season, and put the visitors in an unfamiliar position heading into the third, with a one-goal lead.
But the lead didn’t stick, as Ontario’s Jon Rheault pushed the game-tying goal past Wranglers goaltender Joel Gistedt with 7:25 remaining in the third.
Thrust into duty early in the period because of an injury to starting goaltender Michael Ouzas, Gistedt stopped 15 of 16 shots, including all five Reign shootout attempts.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” Mougenel said of Gistedt, who also relieved Ouzas in the first game of the series and led the team to victory.
“He had a rough start here,” he said. “It says a lot about the character and type of kid he is, to come in with 10 minutes to go and get another win for us.”
Neiszner also praised Gistedt’s performance.
“It’s hard on a goalie when you can’t get your rhythm,” he said, referring to the back-and-forth trips Gistedt has made to AHL San Antonio, “He’s become a leader for us and winning in these shootouts does nothing but give him more confidence.”
After Zacharias – who was put in goal just before the shootout for the second straight night – denied Miller, defenseman Craig Switzer and Mick Lawrence, Lukacevic’s goal gave the Wranglers the victory.
The forward leads Las Vegas with nine goals, eight assists and 17 points against Ontario this season.
"He’s a professional offensive player and he’s got a certain level of confidence he’s playing with right now," Mougenel said. "The game is slowing down for him and he’s speeding up."
Lawrence made sure the Wranglers were off on the right foot Sunday, scoring on the first shift, just nine seconds in.
The lead would last until Sean O’Connor scored on the power play with less than two minutes to play in the period. Ontario’s Tim Kraus then scored halfway through the second for the lead.
“To win these games, it’s a war,” Neiszner said. “You’re not going to win all of the battles, but they bring the team together and we overcame them to win this series.”
Heading into the weekend, Las Vegas trailed Ontario by just a point, or one overtime victory.
The teams are now even at 59 points, but Las Vegas leads the two with 26 wins.
The Wranglers resume play Tuesday and Wednesday with the final two games of their California road trip, traveling to Bakersfield to take on the Condors.
“The best thing for us is that it’s playoff hockey,” Neiszner said. “We’re playing like a more urgent team.”