Mar 11, 2012

Mar. 09, 2012

El Paso, TX – Forget about Friday night, fireworks erupted on Saturday as not just one, but both teams showed up to play in Game 2 of the Western States Hockey League’s Mid-West Conference Playoffs between the El Paso Rhinos and the visiting New Mexico Renegades. However, the team that dominated time of possession, shots, and chances was not the team that walked away with a 6-4 victory.

After getting beaten badly in Game 1, New Mexico scratched and clawed their way in an ugly win, but an important way nonetheless, to tie this series up and force a Game 3. El Paso played about 45 minutes of solid hockey. In their best moments, players like Mike Rivera, Travis Oddy, and Gunnar Bjorklund could carve out the ice like turkey on Thanksgiving. The old saying of creating your own good breaks was prevalent in Saturday’s contest, especially when Trey Hughes’ goal was one that bounced off of a defenseman because he crashed to the net. In fact, Tomas Stastny scored on a shot he took with one man to beat when he was at the top of the faceoff circle.

However, in their worst times, players like just about everyone on the blue-line broke down for the Rhinos, and on an off-night for goalie Trent Casper, breakaways proved to be lethal. New Mexico also forced their own good luck. All three of the goals the Renegades scored in the third period were off of turnovers that led to breakaways or odd-man rushes. It got to a point where Rhinos’ coach Cory Herman needed to call a timeout and refocus his players with a little bit of what we’ll call tough love.

For ¾ of the game, El Paso pushed for the win, however goalie Joey MacConnell was better. He got the start after Eric Messer gave up six goals the night before in a game he didn’t stand a chance in. MacConnell on the other hand made Nabokov-esque saves to keep his team in it. All the while, the rest of the Renegades were acting out the scouting report: irritate the defending Mid-West Champs. Late hits after whistle, checks from behind, and high elbows by New Mexico did what they were intended to do which was put the Rhinos on tilt.

A few examples were after Bjorklund’s goal when Matthew Tritsch was cross-checked from behind. That set off Rhino Captain, Rivera to take offense. Another was after the a play was blown dead at just before the 19 minute mark of the third period when Tritsch was on his back and began taking blows to the face by one of the Renegades. He and Zach Hagmaier were both ejected from the game and will sit Sunday. And to add insult to injury, Cole Dodson shot at the net well after the final buzzer to give El Paso something to remember for Game 3. He was assessed with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. And these were only in the third period.

There was much more of that to go around throughout the game, as well as by El Paso. Brenden Gust was called for a boarding penalty, Craig Hanisch was penalized for throwing an elbow, and David Nelson had a questionable hit that threw Igor Nestorvich flying into the wall. Despite all these things though, the big problem for El Paso was the same problem they had a few months ago: they didn’t finish their shots. The opportunity was there, but they didn’t take it. MacConnell did have a good game, but he spat out some juicy rebounds as well.

Since the Rhinos couldn’t come back in this one, they will have to play game three on Sunday afternoon in a winner-take-all situation. With that said, there is certainly more at stake here for New Mexico as they are playing in what could be their season finale whereas El Paso is moving onto the Thorne Cup Tournament regardless. Round one is almost concluded and soon after comes the Conference finals. Time to see who goes all the way and who goes all the way home.

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.