For the second straight night, El Paso Rhinos\’ goaltender Trent Caspar was clutch when it counted, not allowing a goal in the third period.
For the second straight night, the El Paso Rhinos edged the Dallas Ice Jets for the win, sweeping Dallas aside Saturday, 4-2, for a second straight Mid-West Conference championship.
The conference crown earns El Paso a better seed in the Thorne Cup Finals in two weeks, though both the Rhinos and Ice Jets will be in the four-team championship tournament — El Paso as hosts, the Ice Jets representing the conference.
Nonetheless, the win was important for a team that finished the regular season with questions about its ability to play a full 60 minutes, especially after Dallas nearly became the first team to sweep the Rhinos in El Paso in a three-game series at the end of the regular season. Only a furious three-goal rally by the Rhinos in an overtime win kept that from happening.
Those questions lingered after a heavily-favored El Paso squad dropped the second game of the best-of-three conference semifinal to New Mexico last weekend.
This was different.
Caspar\’s third period play was key in both wins this weekend. Though he allowed three in a 4-3 Rhinos win in Game One Friday night, the Minnesota native stopped all 10 Ice Jets shots in the third period of that game.
He stopped all eight Dallas shots Saturday, and the hard-hitting El Paso defense didn\’t allow the high-flying Ice Jets offense to lift off all night. One of the fastest teams in the Western States Hockey League, Dallas\’ shot totals never hit double digits in any period of the series-clinching win; and the hosts outshot the Ice Jets, 35-25, in the game.
The Rhinos struck first on the power play with the only goal of the opening frame, as Nelson beat Dallas goalie Michael Baldwin at 15:57.
El Paso made it 2-0 on Trey Hughes\’ goal at 3:18 of the second before the Ice Jets could answer.
Sam Akins scored at 9:47 for the visitors, but less than three minutes later the Rhinos and David Nelson were able to notch another to make it 3-1.
However, Dallas got the last goal of the period in the last second of the period, as Jefferson Wright scored on the power play at 19:59, making the score 3-2.
But the third period belonged to the goalies. While Caspar stopped eight, Baldwin shut down all of the 11 shots he faced from El Paso.
Baldwin made 31 saves on the 34 shots that came his way on the night, but wasn\’t in net for the last shot of the game — team captain Mike Rivera\’s empty-netter that clinched the win at 19:58.
The Ice Jets will return to El Paso in two weeks for the Thorne Cup Finals, joined by the champions of the WSHL\’s West and Mountain Conferences. For Thorne Cup Finals tickets and information, contact the Rhinos\’ front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to www.elpasorhinos.com.