The El Paso Rhinos are one point away from clinching at least a share of what would be their third straight Mid-West Division championship, turning away the Tulsa Rampage, 4-3, Sunday afternoon.
El Paso goalie Arthur Hollinger stopped 43 of 46 Rampage shots in the win as the Rhinos, 36-3-1 and 73 points, are also close to gaining home-ice advantage throughout the WSHL’s Thorne Cup playoffs.
Tulsa drops to 24-12-1 with 12 games to play. The Rampage’s 49 points means that El Paso must lose all nine of its remaining games and Tulsa must win all 12 of its games for Tulsa to share the Mid-West crown. San Antonio remains in second place in the Mid-West with 56 points and, mathematically, could still pass the Rhinos.
However, El Paso’s magic number for points is one. A single point from an overtime or shootout loss would earn a share of the division crown with San Antonio, which would give the Rhinos home-ice advantage on head-to-head competition, as the Diablos have not won a game against El Paso this season.
Sunday afternoon, the Rampage struck first, as Michael Criscuolo beat Hollinger 5:16 into the first period.
But team captain Nick Gorup equalized at 8:46, beating Tulsa goaltender Zac Enstrom. With the goal, Gorup surpassed Marcus Wilhite for most points as a Rhino, notching the 212th of his career.
Again, the Rampage took the lead as Derek Serbon scored off the rebound from Criscuolo’s shot just 2:43 into the second period. Then, Dustin Meyer gave the hosts a two-goal lead less than two minutes later, beating Hollinger at 4:24 to make it 3-1.
But that would be all for Tulsa as the Rhinos, behind a stellar effort from Hollinger, allowed nothing more into their net.
El Paso then did the Rampage one better, scoring two goals exactly 31 seconds apart to tie the game, as Zach Goller scored at 8:36 of the second, followed by one of the newest Rhinos, Sweden native Adam Rosenberg, at 9:07.
Rosenberg and Andreas Bengtsson made the overseas journey from their native country to El Paso last weekend, hopped on the team bus Thursday and were both in action the next night for their first tastes of American junior hockey.
At the last, though, it was Goller’s turn to shine again.
A three-year Rhino, Goller, a Corpus Christi native, spent much of this season centering El Paso’s checking line, but was moved up to the first line when Zach Kohn left for the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
He has made a number of clutch plays since the promotion in what will be his final season with El Paso, perhaps none bigger than his goal at 6:22 of the third period, giving the Rhinos their first lead of the game.
It was a lead the El Paso defense would not relinquish as the Rhinos rounded out the season series against their biggest division rivals with a 6-2-1 record.
El Paso is scheduled to play host to the Texas Renegades next weekend at the Sierra Providence Events Center.
For tickets and information, go the Rhinos website at www.elpasorhinos.com, or call the front office at 915.479.PUCK (7825).