Nick Gualano keyed a big third period rally as the El Paso Rhinos beat a short-handed Valencia Flyers team in come-from-behind fashion, 4-2, Sunday at the Sierra Providence Events Center in the final game of the regular season.
El Paso is now 45-3-1 and, with 91 points, finishes the season with the best record in the Western States Hockey League.
The Rhinos, the defending Thorne Cup Champions, will face the Colorado Outlaws in the best-of-three Mid-West Division semifinals beginning in the SPEC next weekend.
For Sunday’s game, Flyers’ coaches were forced to hold some players out of tonight’s game for disciplinary reasons, so the visitors played with only 11 skaters and two goaltenders.
Nonetheless, Valencia team captain Andy Monesi first helped the Flyers get the lead, assisting on Brandon Butler’s roof shot in the first period at 9:29, then improved on that lead himself, snapping a hard wrister from atop the right circle past Andrew Duff at 13:17 of the second period.
Flyers’ netminder Nick Cimity made the lead stick, stopping all 31 Rhinos shots through 40 minutes of hockey and keeping it 2-0 to the visitors going into the final frame.
But in just his seventh game, forward Nick Gualano brought the home team all the way back, first backhanding a shot past Cimity just 1:18 into the third period to key the rally, then assisting on all three of El Paso’s other goals.
In just seven games, Gualano has 12 points (6 goals, 6 assists) after being picked up from the Dubuque Thunderbirds of the Central Junior Hockey League.
Austin Balko also had a big night, scoring the tying goal with two assists for a three-point night.
Defenseman Tyler Benson got the game-winner at 12:59, assisted by Gualano and Balko; and Kevin Davis notched a hard-work insurance goal at 16:06, upended as he made contact with the puck in the slot to beat Cimity, even as he went head-over-heels into the post after the puck went in.
For information or tickets to the WSHL’s Mid-West Division first round playoff series against Colorado, contact the Rhinos front office at 915.479.PUCK (7825) or log on to the team’s website at www.elpasorhinos.com.