Hard-working forward John Morales scored the game-winning goal early in the third period and goalie Trent Caspar made it stick as the El Paso Rhinos beat the Dallas Ice Jets, 4-3, in Game One of the WSHL\’s Mid-West Conference Championships.
Game Two is Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. MDT and, if necessary, Game Three is Sunday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. MDT, at the Events Center, adjacent to the El Paso County Coliseum.
After the Ice Jets\’ Christian Elsborg gave the visitors the early lead at 6:55 of the first, things picked up for the Rhinos\’ offense less than two minutes later as Brenden Gust and Dallas Szustak scored 43 seconds apart to give El Paso the lead going into the first intermission.
Both Rhinos\’ forwards have had their problems with injuries this season, Szustak having been cleared to play just before the start of the Thorne Cup Playoffs. Neither lacks for aggressiveness, but it appears their timing and scoring touch are returning at the right time for the defending Mid-West champions.
Team captain and native El Pasoan Mike Rivera gave the hosts a 3-1 lead just 38 seconds into the second frame. But the speedy Ice Jets are too fast and too good not to answer, especially when given a man advantage on two costly penalties whistled against the Rhinos — the only two penalties assessed in the period.
Elsborg scored his second goal at 3:53 and Sam Akins tied the game, 3-3, at 14:53, both on the power play.
But in playoff hockey, grit can often be the deciding factor in a tight game. Few players have scored grittier, timelier goals this season than Morales, the lanky winger from Los Angeles. Such was the case in Friday\’s Game One, as Morales was there to pounce on a loose puck after Trey Hughes was turned away by Dallas goalie Michael Baldwin at 5:24.
El Paso can wrap up the best-of-three series against the Ice Jets with a win Saturday night. Dallas will be hoping to send it to a decisive Game Three Sunday afternoon. For tickets and information, contact the El Paso Rhinos\’ front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to www.elpasorhinos.com.