In a tight playoff game, a first goal can loom large. It took over 33 minutes, but the El Paso Rhinos scored the first goal, then two more in the next 2:34 to break things open en route to 5-0 shutout of the New Mexico Renegades.
The Game Three win earns the Rhinos a berth in the Mid-West Conference Finals. El Paso will host the Dallas Ice Jets next weekend in the best-of-three series to determine seeding in the Thorne Cup Finals.
Both teams are guaranteed a berth in the Finals as El Paso has an automatic bid as the tournament host. As champion or runner-up, the Ice Jets will represent the Mid-West Conference.
New Mexico had forced a decisive third game in the best-of-three series by thudding the hosts, 6-4, in Game Two Saturday night after absorbing a 6-0 shutout Friday. And in the early going Sunday, the Renegades matched the Rhinos almost shot-for-shot.
But El Paso was determined not to repeat Saturday night, and at 13:03 the team got the breakthrough it sought. Mike Rivera\’s shot on the power play was parried by solid Renegades\’ goalie Joey MacConnell. David Nelson pounced on the short rebound after holding his spot at the goalie crease under fire. Nelson tucked the puck past MacConnell through the five-hole and was immediately mobbed by his teammates.
It didn\’t take long to see how large the momentum swing was.
After John Morales was whistled for holding at 14:17, the Rhinos roared, scoring two short-handed goals during the resulting Renegades\’ power play.
Trey Hughes\’ blast hit just inside the far post before MacConnell could see the puck 13 seconds into the New Mexico man advantage.
Brenden Gust topped that 1:07 later. Gust, who stands only 5-0, is one of the strongest players on the ice, especially in close. He simply beat Renegades\’ forward Jarred Couillard to the puck at the New Mexico blue line, and as Couillard tripped him going in, Gust flew, but caught the puck with the outside edge of his stick as he went airborne.
The flying shot beat MacConnell through the five-hole, and El Paso had a hard-work 3-0 lead.
Nelson wrapped the period\’s scoring with his second of the night at 19:29.
Matt Pietrzykowski added the only goal of the third period at 11:31 to wrap the scoring.
Games One and Two of the best-of-three Mid-West Conference Championship series will be next Friday and Saturday at 7;30 p.m. MDT. Game Three, if necessary, will be Sunday at 4:30 p.m.
For tickets and information, contact the Rhinos\’ front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to www.elpasorhinos.com.