The Luck o’ the Rhinos
Mar. 17, 2012
El Paso, TX – St. Patrick’s Day is a fun occasion year in and year out. It’s defined by church, the color green, and parties. Saturday night, the El Paso Rhinos may be enjoying themselves a little more than the rest. In a heated best-of-three series between them and the Dallas Ice Jets, the Rhinos only needed the first two games to win the Mid-West Conference title for the fifth time in six years.
Since their formation in 2006, El Paso has dominated the WSHL’s Mid-West Conference but in their six year history have only won the Thorne Cup once (2008). After a three year drought, they’re thinking this could be the year. Although by the end of Saturday’s games, they know only of one opponent who has punched a ticket to the Thorne Cup Championships, and it’s the team they just beat…the Ice Jets.
Saturday didn’t quite have all the gusto of Friday but it was still one heck of a hockey game. The Rhinos took the lead with a David Nelson powerplay goal scored in the crease from a pass down low by John Morales and never looked back. That would be the only goal of the opening period.
After the first break, El Paso came out hot scoring 3:18 in with a Trey Hughes goal (Chris Wilhite, Tyler Basham). Once down by two, the Ice Jets showed some signs of life with a Sam Akins goal (Jefferson Wright, Greg Sauers). However, the Rhinos would get that one back when David Nelson got a dish from Alexander Stephens to extend the lead again.
The second period seemed to be ticking down and with 45 seconds remaining, controversy arouse. Kyle Stephens was called with a questionable interference penalty as Christian Elsborg tried to split the defense just after crossing the blueline. The puck seemed to be in between Elsborg’s skate and stick, but that was enough for referee Michael McCullough to blow the whistle.
Dallas rode that momentum immediately. Right off the ensuing faceoff they turned up the heat on El Paso. Then just as the buzzer was about to sound on the period and El Paso fans were about breathe a sigh of relief, Wright capitalized on that suspect penalty with 00.6 second left. The ref dropped the puck ceremonially to finish out the remainder of the period, and the Ice Jets went into the dressing room with all the momentum; that momentum though, would take them nowhere in the third and final period.
The Ice Jets will have one thing looming over them when the season is over, and that would be missed opportunities. Dallas played with the man advantage three times in the period and could not score on any of their chances. The forecheck of El Paso proved to be too aggressive for them to fight. It was the same story the night before; and when asked how the Rhinos planned to attack when on the pk, head coach Cory Herman stated “Dallas is a very good team with an amazing system. Their system may be the best in the league. But when you can throw a wrench in that system and force them out of it then they won’t know how to adjust. With our forecheck, we interrupted the system and it worked out for us.”
Michael Rivera would tack on an empty netter for good measure with 2 seconds remaining (that puts him as the leading scorer in the league not wearing a Boulder Bison sweater), and the Rhinos get to take Sunday off because of their 4-2 victory. For Dallas, they still everything going for them since they will be playing in El Paso in two weeks for the Thorne Cup as well in just their first year with a Junior ‘A’ team. The Rhinos on the other hand can celebrate the victory until midnight, then they’re back to the grind mentally on Sunday and physically during the week. While the Conference title is wonderful, it’s the Thorne Cup that has eluded them for an entire class of players.
Matt Prosser, El Paso Rhinos Beat Writer for JuniorHockey.com. Founder of Fifty8 Productions and freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. Voice of California State University, Sacramento Hockey and host of The Sports Cycle with Matt Prosser on KSSU1580 Sacramento. For comments and writing ventures e-mail Matt@Fifty8productions.com. Follow on Twitter @MattProsser58 or visit www.kssusportsycle.com.