Wranglers Must Find Way To Solve Aces

By Cleve Dheensaw
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2009

Las Vegas may have the gaming tables. But Alaska holds all the Aces.

Victoria hockey products Mike Hamilton and Sean Owens, members of the Las Vegas Wranglers, are now going through what the Victoria Salmon Kings experienced in the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs.

Unable to earn at least a split over the weekend in the formidable confines of Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, the fifth-seed Wranglers head into Game 3 of their best-of-seven National Conference final against the top-seed Alaska Aces trailing 2-0 and facing a must-win situation at home on Wednesday in the Orleans Casino and Resort Arena.

The third-seed Salmon Kings faced a similar scenario in the conference semifinals, dropping the opening two games at the Sully before falling behind 0-3 and being bounced in five games at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre by the Aces.

The six-foot-one Hamilton has had previous playoff success and can draw on that experience. He will need to against a well-balanced and near-unstoppable Aces squad. Hamilton was called up last year from the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL and earned a ring by playing in the AHL playoff final for the Calder Cup-champion Chicago Wolves.

Hamilton was also a member of the 2001 BCHL-champion Victoria Salsa before completing his junior career with a breakout 42-goal and 93-point season in 2002-03 with the Merritt Centennials. That led to the former Claremont Secondary student being taken 175th overall that year in the NHL draft by the Atlanta Thrashers.

Hamilton spent his rookie-pro season of 2007-08 in the Thrashers system with the ECHL affiliate Gladiators in Georgia, showing offensive promise with 23 goals and 50 points and considerable moxie with 121 penalty minutes. His call-up to the Wolves, after Gwinnett was eliminated from the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs, resulted in a Calder Cup championship in his first pro season.

“It helps mentally to have been in situations before,” said Hamilton, in a telephone interview.

“As a team, we’ve played in two game sevens in earlier rounds to get to this point to be in the conference final. That gives you a quiet send of confidence about yourself. We know we can bounce back. We haven’t played our best hockey yet and now we’re home.”

Abandoned by the Thrashers as a prospect, the free agent Hamilton split this season between the ECHL Wranglers and AHL Chicago Wolves and Houston Aeros with a dip in production to 10 goals and 22 points total between the three teams. Hamilton has two goals and five points in 14 playoff games with Las Vegas this spring. He knows a strong Kelly Cup post-season could result in a permanent gig in the AHL.

“An AHL contract is the main goal, personally,” said Hamilton.

The team goal this spring, however, is a Cup named Kelly. Aces goalie Jean-Philippe Lamoureux allowed the Wranglers’ shooters just one goal in Anchorage as the Aces skated to 2-0 and 4-1 victories.

“It was not the offensive output we were looking for,” said Hamilton, who will return to Victoria after the season to work out with the group of Island NHL-AHL-ECHL pros.