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July 22, 2014

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Wranglers face goalie on hot streak as they open conference semifinals

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STEPHEN SYLVANIE / SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Wranglers forward Judd Blackwater smiles in disbelief as Idaho goaltender Jerry Kuhn denies a point-blank backhand shot in a game on March 25. The Wranglers will face Kuhn and the Steelheads in a best-of-seven series starting Monday night as part of the Western Conference Semifinals.

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Ryan Mougenel

The Las Vegas Wranglers hockey team advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2008-09 with a sweep of the Utah Grizzlies in the first round of the East Coast Hockey League Playoffs.

The third-seeded Wranglers will play the seventh-seeded Idaho Steelheads in a best-of-seven series, which starts Monday at 7:05 p.m. at the Orleans Arena. Game 2 of the series will be played Tuesday at the same time on the Wranglers’ home ice.

Idaho advanced to the Western Conference Semis with a 3-2 series victory over the second-seeded Ontario Reign.

“Idaho is a different team than we’ve played all year,” Wranglers coach Ryan Mougenel said. “They’ve made a lot of changes near the end of the season. They’ve definitely improved. They are a team that is very opportunistic.”

After splitting the first four games of the series, Idaho won the decisive fifth game in Ontario with a 5-0 shutout of the Reign. Steelhead goalie Jerry Kuhn recorded 46 saves in the series clinching victory.

“Kuhn won them that series,” Mougenel said. “Kuhn is a good goaltender. He made the saves that he needed to have. Kuhn has been a big staple for them all year.”

Two familiar faces will be present for the playoff series. Goaltender Joe Fallon and left wing Josh Lunden have returned to Las Vegas from the American Hockey League.

Fallon was called up to the Houston Aeros on March 3 for his second AHL stint this season. In nine games with the Aeros, Fallon recorded a 5-2-0 record with a 2.05 goals-against average and a 0.928 save percentage.

While in Houston, the 6-foot-3 goaltender led the Aeros on their first four-game win streak of the season and shut out the Abbotsford Heat to be named AHL Player of the Week for March 12-18.

“Joe has had amazing success at the American League level, not just recently but in years past too,” Mougenel said.

As a member of the Wranglers this regular season, Fallon tallied a 30-10-4 record with a 2.39 goals-against average and a 0.912 save percentage. He was also named ECHL Goaltender of the Week for Jan. 23-29.

Lunden, 26, has been called up to the AHL four times this season. He started his second appearance with the St. John’s IceCaps on March 18 and played in nine games. The 6-foot-2, 202-pound left wing scored 42 points on 21 goals and 21 assists during 44 games with the Wranglers this season.

With Fallon’s return to the team, the Wranglers will have strong depth at the goaltender position for the postseason push.

In the first-round sweep of Utah, Las Vegas netminder Mitch O’Keefe stopped 91 of the 95 shots he faced, including a shutout of the Grizzlies in Game 1 at Utah. The Wranglers are going to ride the hot goalie for the time being.

“I like how Mitch battled and really seized the moment,” Mougenel said. “We’re going to ride Mitch for the next little bit and see how he responds. I’m not a big believer in changing the team too much. He earned the right to play in the second round.”

Mougenel noted that having Fallon as a backup in a playoff series is a luxury most teams at this level are not afforded.

Games 3 and 4 will be played at CenturyLink Arena in Boise on Thursday and Saturday at 6:10 p.m. Game 5 (if necessary) will be played at CenturyLink Arena on Sunday at 6:10 p.m.

Games 6 and 7 (if necessary) will be played back at the Orleans Arena on Tuesday, April 24, and Wednesday, April 25, at 7:05 p.m.

During the 2011-12 regular season, the Wranglers had a 7-1-4 record against the Steelheads, going 2-0-3 at home and 5-1-1 on the road in Idaho.

Mougenel mentioned smart puck management, getting quality looks on the power play and physical defensive play as keys to the series for the Wranglers.

Playoff tickets are on sale now and can be purchased through the Wranglers' front office at (702) 471-PUCK (7825). Fans can purchase playoff strip tickets starting at $18 per game, or buy individual game tickets starting at $20. Tickets for kids ages 12 and under are $8.

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