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HAVING BEATEN PEORIA HAS ITS BENEFITS

Looking for a sure bet on the outcome of the upcoming Western Conference finals? Don't bother trying to figure out the matchups or worrying about the team strengths, it's a waste of time.

The Utah Grizzlies will beat the Las Vegas Thunder and will likely defend their Turner Cup championship . . . well, that is, if a trend continues.By virtue of their victory against the Peoria Rivermen, the Grizz dramatically upped their chances of winning it all.

The Rivermen, you see, are the good-luck charms of the IHL.

Peoria has qualified for postseason play in 11 of the 14 seasons since joining the IHL in 1983. And in every year that they participated in the playoffs, the winner of their particular series has advanced to the Turner Cup finals.

It gets even better. Peoria won the championship twice and the teams that beat the Rivermen went on to win five of eight Turner Cups.

WELCOME BACK: Yes, that flash you saw weaving in and out of Peoria defenders Wednesday night was Utah center Andreas Johansson. The 6-foot, 205-pound playmaker returned to the lineup after not playing since Game 1 of the first round because of a broken finger.

Grizz coach Butch Goring wanted to save him for the next series, but Johansson's finger had healed enough to play, and the way the Grizz offense had been playing there might not have been a next series.

It paid off, too.

In the third period, with Utah leading 1-0, Johansson picked off a Peoria pass at the blue line. He then made a precise pass between two defenders to Chris Taylor, who tapped a back-hander in for an insurance goal.

"There was no tomorrow," Goring said. "We were hoping to get by this series without using him, but I knew he'd give us a spark. And desperate times require desperate moves."

DELAY OF GAME: The Las Vegas Thunder finished off their semifinal series with Chicago last Sunday. The Grizz wrapped on Wednesday. So why the long wait to begin the Western finals? It appears the Thunder, who have the home-ice advantage, have about the same scheduling priority at the Thomas & Mack Center as the Grizzlies do at the Delta Center (which isn't much). So, because of some previously scheduled events, the Thunder weren't able to get an open date at the Thomas & Mack Center until Monday night.

After Game 1 on Monday, the two teams will play again on Tuesday night in Vegas before returning to Salt Lake for games on Thursday, Saturday, and if necessary, Monday. Las Vegas will also host Games 6 and 7 if the best-of-seven series lasts that long.