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October 21, 2014

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Ice Ice Billy

Las Vegas beats a stacked deck

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STEPHEN SYLVANIE / SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Members of the starting lineup of the Las Vegas Wranglers stand at attention on the blue line during the National Anthem prior to the start of Game 2 of the ECHL Western Conference Finals on Friday night.

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The symbolism on Wednesday was evident before the plane touched down in Anchorage.

My row mate from Las Vegas to Seattle spoke loudly on his Bluetooth and used words like "rider," "artists" and "set lists."

My row mate from Seattle to Anchorage, however, sat quietly, paging through a one-inch-thick gun magazine (or catalogue) reading words like "assault" and "weaponry." There were so many pictures of guns that it should have set of the airport's metal detectors. And after I may have noticed his iPod shuffling through "The Unibomber: The Hits!" I began a campaign for catalogue detectors at airports.

For all I know, the entertainment guy may have been from Los Angeles, and the gun guy may have been from my hometown in Kentucky. But in a heated hockey series about contrasts, this event is too obvious to ignore.

With so much hyperbole about the Las Vegas Wranglers and Alaska Aces organizations standing on different sides of the demarcation between good and evil, I have yet to be anecdotal about the differences between the two.

Until now.

The odd 2-4-1 ECHL Western Conference Championship format was forced upon Las Vegas after a 30-minute telephone lecture from Alaska brass as to what it means to be a good league partner, complete with tales of scheduling negotiations past where they always get their way. Quickly thereafter, they declared an impasse in the negotiations which caused the ECHL to mandate the schedule.

Las Vegas's issue was simple. We would not voluntarily take a greater disadvantage than was prescribed by being a lower seed. And so Las Vegas pushed for two scenarios (one made possible with a big assist from the Orleans Arena) that when all facets were considered were not ideal either, but certainly closer to competitively fair.

For many reasons, Alaska destroys the curve on the whole home ice advantage thing at Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena. And the aspiring dynasts found an opportunity to rationalize that they should be allowed to grow their competitive advantage, and retain their best financial scenario to boot.

They wanted to have their king crab legs and to eat them, too.

Despite Las Vegas’s lengthy case that was devoid of any reference to Dr. Evil and Darth Vader, the ECHL made the difficult decision to rule in favor of a 2-4-1 series. There were a couple of considerations for Las Vegas that amounted to a one-way lift to the nearest gas station. But no matter how it was packaged, Las Vegas would have to survive four consecutive games in Alaska to claim its second Western Conference Championship and advance to its second Kelly Cup Finals appearance.

It's a suicide mission, Jim. I’ll tell your wife you love her.

The ECHL ruling cited that 40 percent of the playoff games thus far had been won by road teams. The first flaw in the premise is that higher seeds should beat lower seeds in any arena in the early rounds, that number is too low.

The second fallacy is that this is Alaska we're talking about - with their extra 3,000 or so square feet of ice, geographical location and a public address announcer that is permitted, somehow, to incessantly cheerlead using the Sullivan Arena’s public address system. (There is virtually no music here, just a screaming PA guy rhythmically banging his microphone onto a table during play, and voicing his disagreement to Aces penalties through the sarcastic inflection of the word boarding.)

The 2-4-1 tetherball was batted around on the message boards. Alaska faithful cried foul to the schedule. In Las Vegas, clichés about having to win on the road and whatnot seeped from the most optimistic of hearts.

But despite the angles and takes and positioning, the 4-2-1 bet is one nearly anyone would take if they were Alaska, and had Alaska’s home record. We know how Alaska operates. We know how they think. We know their approach is the polar bear opposite of Las Vegas's. And this is the wager they made: Alaska will reduce the series to a best-of-five by taking one game in Las Vegas, and in that best-of-five the Aces get home ice in a 4-1 format.

No advantage swings to Las Vegas unless a Game 7 is played at the Orleans Arena. When statistically considered, combining Alaska's perennially stellar home record with the number of times a series reaches a Game 7 makes a Game 7 highly improbable – and makes this an easy thing for Alaska to get behind.

H-e-double-hockey sticks, I'd make that bet.

Behind the guise of what's best for the league and the fans, Alaska got what is best for Alaska. Through the kerfuffle, Alaska played the same cards they play each season. They exploited their definition of a good league partner and won their intent, essentially peeing on Las Vegas's leg and complaining about the rain. It works for them year after year, and it would again.

Unless they were swept at home.

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