There is no love lost in this matchup.
The Las Vegas Wranglers and Alaska Aces will renew their ECHL rivalry at 7:05 p.m. Thursday in the first game of a best-of-seven series in the Western Conference Finals at the Orleans Arena.
If history repeats itself, the series will feature more than its share of hard-hitting and physical play, and a spiked interest between the fans of the two clubs — Alaska fans typically travel to Las Vegas for games.
“The one thing when you have two really good teams over the years is that you’re going to develop a rivalry,” Wranglers coach Ryan Mougenel said. “The rivalry is good for the league. Our teams' philosophies are different, which has intensified the rivalry over the years.”
The winner of the series will face the winner of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Florida Everblades and the Kalamazoo Wings for the 2012 Kelly Cup. Las Vegas, which advanced to the finals by capturing a semifinals matchup 4-1 against the Idaho Steelheads, are 5-3-0-1 this year against Alaska and 3-1 at the Orleans Arena.
But, in this rivalry, the records don’t mean much.
The rivalry hit its peak during the 2009 season. A brawl during the game between the teams resulted in a season-ending broken leg for popular Las Vegas player Chris Ferraro. Later, Las Vegas’ mascot, “The Duke,” playfully poured popcorn on fans in the Alaska cheering section. The Alaska fans responded by throwing beer on the mascot.
In a sibling rivalry, Alaska’s Wes Goldie will face off against his brother, Ash Goldie, the Wranglers’ center, with the conference championship at stake. Wes Goldie ranked 16th in the ECHL in scoring during the season with 35 goals and 26 assists.
Alaska is led offensively by Dan Kissel, Wes Goldie and Nick Mazzolini. Kissel finished seventh in the ECHL in scoring during the regular season with 68 points on 35 goals and 33 assists. Mazzolini ranked first on the team in assists with 35 and third on the team with 56 points.
In front of the net, the Aces feature one of the best goalies in the league. Gerald Coleman led the ECHL in goals-against average with 1.93. Coleman recorded an 18-5-1-3 record in the 27 games he started.
“Alaska did a great job of adding to the returning talent from last year,” Mougenel said. “Up front, they have a mix of veterans and good, young players. We have our hands full. They have a lot of fire power, but we’re relishing the role of underdog.”
The Wranglers will counter with a pair of the hottest goalies in the league. Mitch O’Keefe went 5-1 in the first six games he started in the postseason.
Joe Fallon, meanwhile, came in to finish off the Steelheads with Game 4 and 5 victories at Idaho. Fallon, who returned to the Wranglers from a stint in the American Hockey League prior to the series, held the Steelheads to a single goal in each of the games he started.
“Joe Fallon played real well for a guy who hadn’t played in a couple of weeks,” Mougenel said. “He did real well when he filled in for Mitch. Goaltending made the difference against Idaho and will be pivotal for us against Alaska.”
Fallon and O’Keefe could both see action in the conference finals, but Fallon will be in the starting role as the series kicks off Thursday night.
In an unusual scheduling format, the third-seeded Wranglers will host Games 1 and 2 of the conference finals at the Orleans Arena on Thursday and Friday. The next four games, if necessary, will be played at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, and Game 7, if necessary, will be played back at the Orleans Arena on May 9.