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Cincinnati vies for Kelly Cup vs. Las Vegas

by Brian Compton

Cincinnati Cyclones rookie head coach Chuck Weber has his team playing for the Kelly Cup against Las Vegas.
In 2003-04, the Cincinnati Cyclones finished in the cellar of a nine-team Northern Division with just 25 wins and 54 points.

They spent the next two seasons on voluntary suspension, but returned in 2006 with a young, energetic coach who was determined to put hockey back on the map in a city that went from hosting ECHL and American Hockey League teams to none at all.

In his first year as an ECHL head coach, Chuck Weber guided the Cyclones to a 37-win season and a trip to the second round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs, where they lost a heated seven-game series to the eventual conference champion Dayton Bombers.

One year later, Weber's Cyclones are in the Kelly Cup Finals.

After racking up 115 points during the regular season, Cincinnati will face the Las Vegas Wranglers – the National Conference's top team in 2007-08 – in a best-of-seven series that opens tomorrow night at U.S. Bank Arena.

It truly is the culmination of a tremendous campaign for these Cyclones, who are drawing more fans now than they did during the regular season. Media coverage in Cincinnati has skyrocketed, as Weber skates off the ice following practice and finds tape recorders and television cameras in his face.

Yes, hockey is back in Cincinnati.

"The city has just exploded," Weber told this week. "Ever since we started the playoffs against Johnstown, the media coverage has really picked up. On Monday night, we had a coach's show, and every TV station was there. There's definitely a buzz. There hasn't been a pro sports team to bring a championship here since the Reds in '90, and they haven't had a professional hockey championship here since '73, which is kind of crazy since that was the year I was born."

Weber is four wins from tracking down that elusive title. All that stands in his way is Las Vegas, which went 47-13-12 during the regular season and recently swept the Utah Grizzlies to claim its first conference championship.

Unfortunately, the teams did not meet during the regular season, so Weber can only push the play button on his remote control to get a glimpse of what's in store for the Cyclones beginning this weekend. While it's frustrating that Weber didn't get a first-hand look at Cincinnati's finals opponent, the Cyclones didn't face the South Carolina Stingrays in the regular season, either. Cincinnati eliminated the Stingrays in five games in the American Conference Finals.

"The first time we saw them was (Tuesday) on film," Weber said of the Wranglers. "I made a lot of phone calls to get different coaches' opinions of their players and their systems. Usually teams will play different teams different ways. I think we have a pretty good feel for the type of team they are. It's going to be a huge test. They're a great skating team.

"We went through the same thing with South Carolina – it was the first time we've seen them as well. Vegas is in a little situation, just because in their conference they play everybody. Unfortunately, we don't do that. This will be their first experience seeing an unknown team."

"It's going to be a huge test. They're a great skating team." -- Cyclones' coach Chuck Weber on the Las Vegas Wranglers
While it's the first time Las Vegas has reached the Kelly Cup Finals, its roster boasts several seasoned veterans, including former NHLer Peter Ferraro – who has 20 points in 14 postseason games. Shawn Limpright, another Wranglers' forward, played in his first ECHL game back in 2002 with the Roanoke Express.

Weber admitted the disparity in experience is a cause for concern, but the Cyclones managed to get through the first three rounds despite a very young roster. Cincinnati rookie David Desharnais leads the entire ECHL in playoff scoring with 22 points – an indication the Montreal Canadiens' prospect isn't allowing the spotlight to hinder his game.

"We have a lot of rookies in our lineup," Weber said. They have a lot of those second-, third-year guys. I think Peter Ferraro has more playoff games than half my team combined. But we've always rose to the occasion. I think our team is very much chomping at the bit right now to get playing again. They understand that if we win a championship, it bodes well for them to get a call-up next year. Everyone wants a winner."

It's been quite some time since Weber received a championship ring. In his first season as an assistant coach, he helped the Orlando Solar Bears with a Turner Cup Championship in the International Hockey League in 2001. He's relived some of those moments with his current team, which is just four wins away from a Kelly Cup.

Time to make a new memory.

"Everyone wants a chance to win a championship," Weber said. "I was fortunate enough down in Orlando to win a Turner Cup in the IHL in 2000-01. I have all those memories, and I've passed that on to the guys. When you win a championship, you can name every player on that team. It's a very special opportunity that you might not get again." 

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