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HOCKEY:

Wranglers clinch playoff spot by default

Updated Friday, Dec. 26, 2008 | 10:22 p.m.

The Las Vegas Wranglers (11-13-0-2) woke up Monday morning as the third-place squad of the ECHL's Pacific Division, trailing the Fresno Falcons (18-10-1-1) by 14 points.

But the Wranglers will go to sleep tonight in second place with an automatic playoff berth -- sort of.

The ECHL Board of Governors voted unanimously Monday to terminate the membership of the Fresno Falcons, effective immediately. The Falcons' ownership group notified the league that it could no longer operate due to financial reasons, including a lack of season ticket sales and corporate sponsors.

The Falcons are affiliated with the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks and the AHL's Rockford IceHogs.

With the Falcons out of the league, that leaves just four teams in the Wranglers' division. Under the current ECHL 16-team playoff format, the top four teams from each division advance to the postseason. The North division currently consists of seven teams, while both the West and South divisions each have five teams since the Augusta Lynx ceased operation on Dec. 2 because of financial reasons.

The ECHL Board of Governors has yet to determine if it will change its playoff structure. For now, though, the Wranglers can make their reservations for the postseason.

The Wranglers are 2-2 against the Falcons this season and were slated to host Fresno Feb. 13 and 15 at the Orleans Arena.

Josh Fisher, the Wranglers' director of media relations, said the ECHL Board of Governors is working on a new schedule that should be announced by the end of the week.

All of the Falcons' players will immediately become unrestricted free agents. The Wranglers could be a top bidder for some of the now-former Falcons. Wranglers head coach and general manager Glen Gulutzan is no stranger to Fresno after playing there as part of the former West Coast Hockey League for six seasons.

"It’s sad," Gulutzan said. "I had six good years there… It’s sad to see the team go. They were an exciting team. I feel bad for the coaches and players for sure."

Fresno averaged 3,284 fans per game this season, which was 15th out of the now 21-team league. The Wranglers draw an average of 4,300 fans per game, which is 11th best in the ECHL.

Now 12 points out of first place, the Wranglers will take a break for Christmas before returning for a three-game home stand. The Wranglers host the Phoenix Roadrunners (12-11-1-2) on Friday (7:30 p.m.) and the Alaska Aces (16-11-0-1) on Saturday (7:30 p.m.) and Sunday (2:05 p.m.).

Steve Silver can be reached at 948-7822 or [email protected].

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