2014 NATIONAL AND THORNE CUP CHAMPIONS
In true Rhino fashion, the team strung together another successful season in 2013-2014, earning a stellar 44-2-0 record. The Rhinos record-breaking season was due in large part to a truly deep roster. Veteran players like David Nelson, Andrew Bradford, Jack Strusz, Chris Wilhite, and Nick Wright returned to the team. Meanwhile, the explosive Plesa brothers line became an offensive machine for the Rhinos, posting a combined 270 points. Forwards Chad Cesarz and Austin Hoff also returned to the Rhinos from NAHL clubs, while defenseman Kalvis Ozols and forwards Eric Baldwin and Drew DePalma were acquired from the San Diego Gulls. Jan Dam, former Rhino and the newest staff member, convinced Jiri Pestuka, another Czech native, to join the El Paso roster late in the season. With these acquisitions and resignings, the Rhinos successfully solidified top-end offensive talent and productive depth.
In the crease, the Rhinos acquired two solid goaltenders to make up arguably the most powerful tandem in the WSHL. Herman’s last minute trades allowed for Seattle Totems goalie Bryce Fink to support Vay in the net. At the end of the Rhinos deep postseason run, Fink was named Thorne Cup and National Championship MVP, earning a 6-0 record in the postseason. Fellow Rhinos goaltending acquisition Adam Vay achieved similar success in the regular season, earning a 25-1-0 record and fantastic .936% save percentage. Vay also won all three of his playoff starts, making the Fink-Vay tandem undefeated in the Thorne Cup Playoffs. At season’s end, Vay was rated the number one goalie in the WSHL with the best goals against average, save percentage, and near-perfect regular season record.
Rhino staff also contributed mightily to the successful season. Garrett Poland returned as assistant coach while Jan Dam returned to help with hockey operations and European scouting. The city certainly rallied around the team’s success; the Rhinos posted 26 sellouts, good for best attendance in the entire WSHL.
As the number one team in the WSHL and arguably all of Tier III junior hockey all season long, the Rhinos took advantage of their regular season momentum by posting an undefeated playoff record (9-0-0) that earned them a trip to the 2014 Thorne Cup Championship. The Rhinos defeated the defending champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads 7-3 in front of a rowdy home crowd to clinch their second Thorne Cup in franchise history.
Less than three weeks later, the Rhinos travelled to Las Vegas, Nevada to contend for the National Championship title. After a win over the Jersey Shore Wildcats, the El Paso looked to take on the Idaho Steelheads again. This time, however, their luck ran out as the Steelheads clenched a shutout victory. After correcting their path with two wins over the Soo Firehawks, the Rhinos met the Steelheads for the third time in three weeks. A 7-3 win for El Paso meant that Idaho had been dethroned yet again. David Nelson’s hat trick and Bryce Fink’s goaltending performance helped the Rhinos earn their first National Championship Title in franchise history.
In addition to winning three title during the season, the Rhinos played in the franchise's first outdoor game. Clad in vintage throw back jerseys, the Rhinos secured a shutout of the New Mexico Renegades at the Los Alamos Outdoor Rink. Off the ice, the Rhinos made community gains by hosting their fifth annual golf tournament as well as its inaugural Vern Jhondro Memorial Rhino Run.
At the end of the season, Drew DePalma, Chad Cesarz, Austin Hoff, and Chris Wilhite, and Jack Strusz committed to play for St. Mary’s. Dakota Beaulieu signed to Worcester State in Massachusetts and Bryce Fink committed to play at the University of Wisconsin Superior. Defenseman Kalvis Ozols joined the professional ranks as he travels home to Europe to play for the Mont-Blanc Yetis. Tom Bartel also moved on to play collegiate hockey as he signed with Hamline University.
DEFENDING THORNE CUP CHAMPIONS RETURN TO THORNE CUP FINALS
The El Paso Rhinos – 2013-14 Thorne Cup Champions – put together another fantastic season in 2014-15. The team finished with 82 points for the season with a 41-5 record. The Rhinos were a decidedly defensive team in 14-15, allowing only 95 goals during the regular season – ranking them third in the league as one of only three teams in double digit goals allowed.
Goaltender Adam Vay started 32 games out of 46 regular season games for the Rhinos and posted a stellar 2.03 goals against average and a 0.923 save percentage. Vay was responsible for closing the door at the goal line but, several defenders did their part in making sure that opposing players never even got near Vay. Defenseman Robert Horak led all defensive players in games played – with 42 – and was a stalwart in the Rhinos’ starting lineup.
Defenseman Patrik Stancl – also from Czech Republic, like Horak – played 41 games and was also a key to shutting dowwn opposing offenses. Angel Sanca appeared in 34 games defending the blue line as well. Sanca ended the season with an amazingly low eight penalty minutes in those 34 games. Defenseman Brennan Johnsson joined the Rhinos at the trade deadline from the Phoenix Knights and not only helped to secure the blue line but, Johnsson also added nine points in just six regular season games in the orange and black.
Just because the Rhinos defense was among the league’s best, it does not mean that the offense was anything for opposing teams to take lightly. In fact, the Rhinos also ranked third in the league in goals scored with 279. It would be impossible to discuss the Rhinos prolific offense without first mentioning yet another Czech player – forward Jiri Pestuka.
Pestuka ended the season tied for third in the league in goals with 41. Defenseman David Brancik – and Pestuka’s fellow Czech and roommate – was not to be outdone when it came to scoring. Brancik led all WSHL defenseman with 49 points. Brancik’s total was two points ahead of fellow Rhino Johnsson, who did most of his scoring with Phoenix.
A large amount of Pestuka and Brancik’s goals came from the stick of Swedish forward Sebastian Borg. Borg’s 74 points – most of which came from his 50 assists – ranked him ninth in the league. Pestuka was just ahead of Borg with 76 points. Pittsburgh’s Bryton Tomko and Czech forward Marek Langhammer both contributed over 40 points to the team’s amazing offensive numbers.
Forward and fan favorite Gavin Abbott secured 38 points for his team during the regular season. Forwards Lukas Znosko and Jordan Cullum -- Cullum was also added late in the season from Phoenix – contributed mightily to the cause, as well.
In December, the Rhinos headed to Las Vegas – with a 19-2 record in tow – to face-off in the WSHL’s 14th annual Western States Shootout. The Rhinos hit the road back to El Paso with yet another championship in tow. The team beat the Idaho Jr. Steelheads 4-3 in double overtime in the final game of the round robin showcase tournament. The Rhinos and Steelheads would match up again in mid-April with a much different result.
The Rhinos began the Thorne Cup Playoffs with a two game sweep of the Dallas Snipers. The next weekend saw the Oklahoma City Blazers roll into El Paso in order to continue what has become a burgeoning rivalry. After losing game one in overtime, the Rhinos stepped it up and defeated the Blazers 8-2 and 8-1 in the next two games. El Paso then swept the Ogden Mustangs in order to secure the conference championship and guarantee a shot at defending their Thorne Cup Championship.
The first game was at the Sierra Providence Events Center, after the Steeleheads – who possessed the better record – chose to have the final game three games in Idaho. The Steelheads – who finished four points ahead of the Rhinos during the regular season with 86 – jumped out to a three goal lead in front of a capacity crowd after only eight minutes.
Midway through the first period, Pestuka netted a goal to head into the first intermission at 3-1. The Rhinos used that momentum to continue to score on the Steelheads and netted three more goals in the second period. The game would end as a 4-3 Rhinos victory.
Unfortunately, the Rhinos were not able to harness the first game magic in order to repeat as Thorne Cup champions. Idaho won the next game in El Paso and the following three games in Idaho in order to secure the Thorne Cup Championship.
The Rhinos were once again active in the community, visiting local schools and participating once again in St. Baldrick’s Day festivities. The entire team and coaching staff shaved their head in support of St. Baldrick’s Day. Fans were able to bid money in order to shave a player’s head. All proceeds were donated to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.
Despite coming up just short at the end of the season, 2014-15 was a successful season for the Rhinos yet again. The players all contributed in some way in the community and on the ice. The team sold out almost every game and is looking to once again put an outstanding team on the ice next season.
The Thorne Cup will always be the goal for any El Paso Rhinos team and next year will undoubtedly feature yet another outstanding team – and a strong push for El Paso’s most successful franchise.