For two games in a row, the Denver Rangers, who will finish seventh in the IHL, battled the Golden Eagles to overtime shootouts, losing one and winning one. For 21/2 periods Wednesday night in their final home game of the regular season, the Rangers were right there again, tied 2-2 against a team that will probably win the West Division and could take the overall league regular-season title.
Then, with just under seven minutes left in Denver Coliseum, a Ranger defender backed in against Paul Ranheim as he came over the blue line, and the Eagle rookie put two games worth of frustration into one mighty slap shot. Suddenly, it looked like a first-place team against an also-ran.The Eagles scored four goals in less than three minutes in that third period and came away with a 6-2 win.
Ranheim had two of those goals, his 66th and 67th, to break a 23-year-old IHL record for goals by a rookie. He needs eight more to tie the IHL mark for goalscorers.
The Wednesday win sets up a confrontation with the Lumberjacks in Muskegon Friday. The 'Jacks are one point up on the Eagles for the overall lead. Should the Eagles win that game, they'd take the league lead and win the division.
Wednesday's win was the Eagles' 16th in 17 games, and they haven't had a regulation-time loss in more than a month.
That was hardly obvious Tuesday night and most of Wednesday night as Denver defensed the Eagles well. "Denver played us very smart," said Eagle Coach Paul Baxter, crediting Ranger Coach Doug Soetaert, who took over from Pete Mahovlich Feb. 20.
"I'm trying to get them thinking more defensively in our zone. We never used to do that," said Soetaert. "We just didn't have a system. Now we have a system, and we're going to live and die by it."
Ranheim noticed the difference. "I was frustrated personally. I was getting tied up quite a bit and had trouble getting to the net. We were frustrated as a team," he added. "We'd play good at times and average at times."
Then came the right chance. "They did a good job standing up at the blue line," Ranheim said. But at 13:05 of the third period came "a rare time the defender was backing off, and I cranked it up. I really got a good shot away," said Ranheim. "I'd kind of built up aggression. I was frustrated."
"He's got a heckuva shot," said Soetaert, adding, "We played him pretty tight."
Fifty-eight seconds later, Marc Bureau crashed toward Ron Scott's goal, taking a defender with him and leaving the puck at the side of the net for Mark Holmes to jam in on a trailer.
That gave the Eagles a 4-2 lead, and Soetaert said all four of those goals were bad ones for Scott, his assistant coach, to have given up. Soetaert blamed Scott's rustiness; Mike Richter, now in New York, has played most of Denver's games in goal.
Going hard to the net was something the Eagles haven't done in this Denver doubleheader, and Ranheim credited Bureau and Holmes for both doing it at once, calling it the play that took the Rangers out of the game _ a two-goal lead in an otherwise tight battle.
At 15:25, just 2:20 after his 66th goal, Ranheim himself rushed the net and planted a pass from Randy Bucyk for his record-breaking goal. (A Bucyk assist also netted Ranheim's 60th goal a week ago to break Joe Mullen's franchise record.) It took a bit for it to sink in on Ranheim. "I was more interested in the game," he said. "It was a tight game and we were struggling, but after the second one it hit me. I was pretty excited. I haven't broken too many records."
The other third-period goal was by Peter Lappin at 16:03. It was his 47th.
Jim Leavins, who had a hat trick Tuesday, scored the first goal of the game on a power play at 1:49 of the first period and assisted Brian Glynn's power-play goal at 13:56 of the first as Salt Lake took a 2-1 lead. Ron Shudra scored both of Denver's goals, one on a power play.
Eagle goalie Steve Guenette halted Denver scoring leader Simon Wheeldon on a breakaway with the score 2-2 to keep the Rangers in check until the Eagle avalanche in the third. "That was a big part of the game," said Baxter.
Baxter hadn't been happy with Guenette Tuesday since the goalie didn't keep his cool in confrontations with Wheeldon and Paul Broten and eventually was ejected, forcing Wayne Cowley to come in cold. Cowley took the loss in the shootout. But Guenette and the Eagles stayed calm Wednesday, and the result was positive. "We wanted to be aggressive and initiate but not retalliate," said Ranheim.
He added that the Eagles' game returned to normal in the third period.