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August 1, 2014

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Wranglers end season with 5-1 loss to Utah in playoff elimination game

It was a season of momentum.

From the drop of the first puck last fall, the Las Vegas Wranglers endured many twists and turns to their season.

They started in a swoon, picked up their play near midseason and ended with a flurry of wins, vaulting them into the ECHL playoffs.

But on Tuesday night in Utah, during the second period in the deciding game of the National Conference quarterfinals, the Wranglers momentum changed for good.

Down three goals, the Wranglers appeared to get in the scoring column as a puck squirted past Utah goaltender Mikko Koskinen.

But the goal light never illuminated, the tally was waved off and defenseman Chris Frank was whistled for cross-checking.

“That was the momentum swing,” Wranglers head coach Ryan Mougenel said. “It was a bad call. It was unfortunate, and I’m disappointed with the way I responded to it and how the team responded to it.”

Utah scored on the ensuing power play. Nine seconds later, the lead was four goals and the Wranglers had finally sunk, losing to the Grizzlies in an elimination game, 5-1.

“It definitely stings and it will for a long time,” Wranglers captain Chris Neiszner said. “I don’t know what else to say.”

Las Vegas fell behind early, trailing by a goal at the first intermission before allowing two goals in the first four minutes of the second period.

“We knew from the start of the series that we were playing an offensive team,” Neiszner said. “Tonight, their offense came through when ours didn’t.”

Grizzlies left-winger Ryan Kinasewich opened the scoring in the first period, but it was his second goal and Utah’s fourth of the game that was in question by Mougenel afterward.

“This is not a clear-cut game,” Mougenel said. “I make mistakes, players make mistakes and referees make mistakes.”

“But I thought it was the wrong call,” he said. “The goal light never went on and the whistle should have blown before the penalty call.”

What could have given the Wranglers a ray of hope instead shut the door on a comeback, but following protocol, the team didn’t give in.

“We were playing for our lives on every shift,” Neiszner said. “With the character that we have, the score didn’t matter.

“Unfortunately, they got some bounces and we had to press harder. When you do that, sometimes you make some mistakes defensively.”

Jimmy Spratt, whose hot play down the stretch of the regular season helped Las Vegas secure a playoff berth, stopped 32 of 37 Utah shots.

Las Vegas recorded 39 shots in the defeat and Mick Lawrence netted a power-play goal at the 8:45 mark of the third period, assisted by Jason Krischuk and Jerry Pollastrone, to avoid the shutout.

“This definitely isn’t how you want to end the season,” Mougenel said. “But I do know one thing: I’m extremely proud of these guys. They have endured a lot, and it was a tough kind of season in a lot of different ways.”

Three stars: 1. Utah’s A.J. Perry (goal, three assists); 2. Utah’s Mikko Koskinen (38 saves); 3. Utah’s Ryan Kinasewich (two goals).

First finished: On his first season as coach, Mougenel said, “I learned a lot about myself as a coach. I’m extremely proud of the type of people and team that we built. If you look at how we grew as a group from beginning to end, we were a different team.”

Up next: Utah will advance to play the Idaho Steelheads in the National Conference semifinals.

Final word: “We believed we could win,” said Neiszner. “But we showed what we were capable of this season, and I’m proud of this group.”

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