(EL PASO, TX) — Sam Mancini tapped in a short rebound at the crease for the game-winning power play goal in overtime and the Oklahoma City Blazers edged the El Paso Rhinos, 4-3, to take the pivotal first game of the best-of-three Midwest Division championship series.
The Blazers have beaten the Rhinos once in every series the teams have played this season and only need one more to send the defending Thorne Cup and national champions home for the spring.
From the beginning, the first-year franchise had the jump on the hosts. The Blazers scored early goals in each of the three periods of regulation. It took El Paso defenseman David Brancik’s goal with 39 seconds left just to send the game to overtime.
Penalties hurt the Rhinos throughout the contest. An early cross-check by Brancik and an interference penalty by Robert Horak gave the Blazers a 5-on-3 power play. It took Oklahoma City only 17 seconds after to capitalize on the two-man advantage and get the opening goal, as Kirill Romanov found himself all alone in the slot against El Paso goalie Adam Vay.
Romanov had time to pick his spot, beating Vay low at 3:20 of the first.
The Rhinos answered on a 5-on-3 of their own, as Jiri Pestuka rifled home a feed from Marek Langhammer at 14:00 of the first.
But it took OKC just 48 seconds into the second period to get the lead back, as Matthew Audette deposited a rebound off Kole Hudson’s shot.
Again, Pestuka found an answer, firing a beautifully-placed wrist shot over Blazers’ goaltender Jakub Krejci’s right shoulder at 14:16 of the second frame.
Pestuka’s goal looked to be the wake-up call the lethargic Rhinos needed, and Oklahoma City was fortunate not to concede another in the closing minutes of the period.
However, the Blazers’ Petr Kobes swung momentum back to the visitors with his goal just 1:46 into the third period.
This time, it appeared the Blazers were going to make the lead stick as El Paso could not seem to find the same gear it had at the end of the prior frame. But with Vay on the bench for the extra attacker, El Paso won an important draw with just under a minute left in regulation.
Bryton Tomko’s pass out from behind the net found Pestuka close to Krejci’s stick side, but the Czech Republic forward elected to pass to his countryman, Brancik, who was pinching in from the point.
Brancik’s hard wrister deflected off of Krejci’s blocker and in for the goal at 19:21, and momentum was back with the Rhinos. Romanov added to the Blazers’ woes with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at the end of regulation, giving El Paso a power play to start overtime.
Again, though, the Rhinos could not find the extra gear they needed against Oklahoma City to start the overtime period, and after Horak was called for tripping at 5:36 the Blazers’ sails caught wind.
Keeping the pressure on El Paso and not allowing the Rhinos to clear their zone, OKC was able to work the puck low. Hudson’s shot was stopped by Vay, but the puck died just outside of the crease, set on a tee for Mancini to tap home at 6:27.
El Paso will have to hope history plays out as it has in the three other three-game series the teams played in the regular season. Though the Blazers won a game in each of them, the Rhinos won the other two.
But playoff hockey is a different animal altogether, especially in a short series; and the Blazers tamed the beast first.
Game two is Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. MDT and, if necessary, Game Three will be Sunday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. MDT. For tickets and information, contact the Rhinos’ front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to the team website at www.elpasorhinos.com.