Billy Krueger scored the game-winning goal with 4:49 to play, keying a three-goal barrage by El Paso as the Rhinos doubled the San Antonio Diablos, 6-3, in Game One of the best-of-three WSHL Mid-West Division Championship.
El Paso can advance to its third-straight Thorne Cup Finals with one more win, and with it the right to represent the Western States Hockey League in the Tier III Junior A Hockey National Championship in Marlboro, MA.
The defending Thorne Cup champions skated hard from the first drop of the puck; but the Diablos, who eliminated the Tulsa Rampage from the playoffs last week with two wins in Tulsa, countered with plenty of firepower, tying the game despite being down, 3-1, at the start of the final period.
The Rhinos’ quick start gave the visitors problems, though, as Nick Gorup tapped a backhanded shot over San Antonio goalie Mike Becker’s left shoulder at 4:43 of the first to give the hosts an early lead.
Trevor Erickson scored 12:02 to give El Paso a 2-0 lead at the end of the first period, but it only took the Diablos 56 seconds to get back in the game, as Chris Ladrow continued his strong showing in the post-season, scoring the first of two goals on the night, placing the puck perfectly over Rhinos’ netminder Arthur Hollinger’s left shoulder.
El Paso would get its two-goal cushion back as Justin Hancock redirected Andrew Ketterer’s shot from the left point past Becker at 8:53.
But Patrick Bernier scored in a mad scramble at the end of a San Antonio power play at 4:13 of the third period and Ladrow brought the Diablos all the way back at 11:33, and the Rhinos were suddenly on their heels at home.
But on a two-man advantage, Krueger, who leads the franchise all-time with 10 post-season goals, got a pinpoint pass from teammate Nick Gorup and threaded his wrister past Becker from just off the end line at 15:11 to end the stalemate.
On the same power play Eric LaBounty found the net exactly one minute later and Nick Gualano potted the empty net goal with five seconds remaining for the final tally.
The two teams skate again at 7:30 p.m. MST Saturday night in the Sierra Providence Events Center. If necessary, Game Three will be Sunday afternoon, 5:30 p.m. MDT.
Games can be seen on MetroSports Southwest, Time Warner Cable Channel 24, on a tape-delayed basis. Friday’s game can be seen Saturday morning at 10 a.m. and Saturday’s game will be replayed at 2:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon. Sunday’s game would be replayed Monday afternoon at 5:30 p.m.
The games will also be available beginning mid-week next week via Time Warner’s On Demand service for digital cable subscribers. Fans can find Rhinos games on MetroSports On Demand, Digital Cable Channel 832.
Video from all games is also streamed live from the team’s website, www.elpasorhinos.com. For tickets and more information, contact the Rhinos via the website, or at 915.479.PUCK (7825).