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DEFENSIVE GRIZZLIES IN VEGAS

"Offense wins games; defense wins championships."

The time-honored adage is about to be put through a grinding test when the Utah Grizzlies and Las Vegas Thunder begin their Western Conference finals battle tonight at 8 p.m. at the Thomas and Mack Center."I've said that theory a lot this season. Hopefully my players will prove me right," said Grizz coach Butch Goring, referring to the phrase.

So far in their run for a repeat title, the defending Turner Cup champs have done nothing to convince him otherwise. But they have taken the theory to an extreme.

In squeaking by two tough Midwest Division foes in the first two rounds, the Grizzlies had to make up for their lack of offense with an outstanding defensive effort and an even better goaltending performance from Tommy Salo. Utah averaged only 2.75 goals a game in the first two series, which the Grizz compensated for by allowing merely 1.73 goals a contest.

But . . . Kansas City and Peoria - the two teams Utah's defeated so far in the playoffs - aren't Las Vegas. Not even close.The Thunder used their potent offense to win a whole lot of games this year - and in convincing fashion. While rolling to a league-best record of 57-17-8, Las Vegas averaged an IHL-high 4.63 goals a game. The Thunder have hardly missed a beat in the playoffs, either, as they've racked up an average of 4.22 goals in nine playoff games.

Something - either Salo's incredible goals-against average or the Thunder's ballooning goals-for average - has got to give in this best-of-seven series.

"We'd certainly like to keep Salo's average right where it is," Goring said.

The problem the Thunder present for the Grizzlies is that they are hardly a one-man attack. Las Vegas has seven players on its squad that finished the regular season with as many or more points than anyone on the Grizz roster. Patrice Lefebvre and Sergei Zholtok scored over 100 points with 114 and 101, respectively. The pair is also leading the Thunder in postseason scoring.

"Who knows how many goals they'll score?" added Goring. "But we'll do what we do best - check a lot and frustrate the offense."

That tactic worked very well during the regular season when the Grizzlies split the series 4-4 with the Thunder, who won the Southwest Division title rather handily. And, though no other team won more games against Vegas than Utah did, the most eye-popping statistic is that the Grizzlies actually outscored the Thunder 29-27.

Las Vegas isn't just a one-minded offensive machine, though. They have mobile defenders, led by IHL defenseman of the year Greg Hawgood, and a very talented goalie in Pokey Reddick.

"They're very explosive. They rely on their offense but combine it with a pretty good defense," added Goring. "We're the underdogs and rightfully so."

"Our season wouldn't be complete unless we had a chance to match up with Butch's team," Thunder coach Chris McSorley told the Las Vegas Sun. "There won't be any holding back in this one. It's going to be a tough, physical series."

The winner will advance to play either the Orlando Solar Bears or the Cincinnati Cyclones, who begin the Eastern Conference finals tonight.