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.