Trey Hughes scored the game-winning goal 51 seconds into overtime, and the El Paso Rhinos avoided their first-ever three-game sweep at home, beating the Dallas Ice Jets, 5-4.
As they had for six previous periods of hockey, the Ice Jets took it straight to their hosts in the first period of Sunday\’s regular season finale at the Events Center, leading 3-0 going into the intermission.
Dallas started the scoring just 3:06 into the game as the Rhinos allowed a three-man rush in on goaltender Trent Caspar. Austin Azurdia scored the goal, and again the Ice Jets were off to the races.
Sam Akins walked in to score an unassisted goal at 8:36, Jefferson Wright scored on the power play at 13:02, and it looked like El Paso was destined for its third-straight loss.
But head coach Cory Herman decided to use all the runway to talk to his team in the intermission. Linesman Rod Beich was actually dispatched to get the Rhinos out of the locker room for the start of the second period.
Herman walked out just before Beich arrived at the door, and a jarred group of Rhinos took to the ice, challenged by their coaches.
The challenge was simple: if they allowed the Ice Jets to sweep the three-game series without every player doing his utmost, then El Paso\’s Mid-West Conference champion\’s record must be a mere illusion.
Over the next 41 minutes, the Rhinos would respond with one of their most heart-stopping performances in recent memory.
As has often been the case when El Paso needs a jolt of adrenalin, John Morales is the player who administers the shot. The emotional Los Angeles native wears his heart on his sleeve, never scoring the prettiest goals, but often the grittiest.
It was Morales who started the Rhinos\’ rally at 6:20 of the second frame, blasting a Hughes pass right by Dallas goalie Michael Baldwin before crashing into the goalie and taking out the net.
Morales followed the first with another hard-work goal, denying two defenders the puck as he skated from behind the net, then spinning 180 degrees to power his shot past Baldwin low to the stick side at 12:35.
Less than a minute later, El Pasoan Mike Rivera brought his team all the way back, one-timing a wrister past Baldwin to tie the game, 3-3, after teammate Matt Tritsch sped past his defender to tap a pass from the corner to his wide open team captain at 13:18.
Disaster almost struck the Rhinos in the third period. Johnny Henson gave the Ice Jets their second lead after Caspar came way off his line to clear a puck, only to have it bounce straight to Dallas in the Rhinos zone at 8:23.
But Rivera returned the favor to Tritsch on the power play, lifting the puck through the Ice Jets backchecking and passing to Tritsch low in the right circle. Tritsch\’s one-timer squirted through Baldwin\’s initial save and into the net to make it 4-4 at 10:06, giving Tritsch his fourth goal of the weekend.
Both teams had their chances for the go-ahead goal through the final 10 minutes of regulation, but Caspar and Baldwin were solid in their respective nets and the game went to overtime — where it didn\’t take long for Hughes to decide matters.
El Paso stopped a Dallas foray in their defensive zone and Hughes picked up the puck with lots of room to skate up the right wing. Ice Jets\’ defenseman Bryan Siersma set up to stop Hughes just inside the Dallas blue line, but Hughes pushed the puck to his right, dangling the bait. Siersma took it and went for the puck, Hughes popped it back in, took two strides and rifled his shot over Baldwin\’s left shoulder for the game-winner.
The win averts what would have been the first-ever three-game series sweep at home in Rhinos\’ franchise history and gives El Paso a 35-9-2 record (72 points) going into the Western States Hockey League\’s Thorne Cup Playoffs.
Dallas earns a point after being tied at the end of regulation, but falls to 26-12-5 (57 points). The Ice Jets now have a six-point lead over the third place Texas Brahmas going into the final week of the regular season. The Ice Jets and Brahmas will play each other in the first round of the playoffs, but home-ice advantage is still on the line this week for both teams with no room for error for the Brahmas.
El Paso will host the New Mexico Renegades in the first round, New Mexico making its first-ever appearance in the Thorne Cup Playoffs in its fourth season of play.
The best-of-three series begins Friday, March 9th, at the Events Center. For tickets and information, call the Rhinos\’ front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to www.elpasorhinos.com.