(RIO RANCHO, NM) — Though the New Mexico Renegades are playing for the playoff lives, the El Paso Rhinos outshot their hosts, 53-24, and dominated throughout for a 6-1 win Friday night.
The series is the last of the regular season for both teams and the Renegades (19-24-0-1, 39 points) are three points behind the Phoenix Knights for the fourth and final playoff spot in the WSHL\’s Thorne Cup Playoffs. New Mexico must win both remaining games against the Rhinos to assure themselves of a playoff berth.
El Paso improves to 34-8-0-2 to earn its 70th points of the season. The Rhinos have already earned home ice advantage throughout the Mountain Conference playoffs and finish as regular season conference champions for the seventh time in seven seasons. El Paso moved from the Mid-West Conference to the Mountain Conference this season.
The Rhinos largely got the defensive intensity head coach Cory Herman was hoping for going into the playoffs next weekend, and El Paso\’s spread-the-wealth offense yielded six goals from six different players.
Team captain and native El Pasoan Mike Rivera started the scoring just 3:12 into the game with his team-leading 31st goal of the season on a dish from defenseman Chris Wilhite, who waited until the last second to pull the trigger on his pass from the left corner that left Rivera one-on-one with Renegades goalie Zach Woodman.
Centerman Chad Cesarz scored at 1:42 of the second frame. Forward John Morales followed that just over three minutes later with a backhanded one-timer skating away from goal that beat Woodman over the shoulder at 4:51.
Utilizing their team speed and solid passing, the Rhinos were able to create lots of traffic in front of Woodman, who stoned El Paso time-and-again in the teams\’ prior meeting in El Paso. New Mexico became the first team to take two points from the Rhinos in El Paso this season, largely behind Woodman\’s efforts.
But the high-traffic strategy showed even more in the third period with the home team down 3-0. Tyler Basham skated hard down the slot before dishing to David Nelson who beat Woodman from low in the left circle at 8:14, followed by defenseman Gunnar Bjorklund under two minutes later. Woodman turned away a shot from hard-skating Brenden Gust, but the rebound fell straight to Bjorklund who scored at 9:53.
The Renegades finally broke through at 14:02 of the third with Ian Reffert\’s goal, averting what would have been El Paso goalie Alex Palumbo\’s fourth shutout in seven starts. Formerly the Rhinos backup goaltender, Palumbo still stopped 23 of 24 shots and has proved himself in the starter\’s role after the team traded Austin Brihn to Southern Oregon early last month.
Tyler Barger wrapped the scoring at 17:13 as defenseman Jack Strusz found the forward on a long outlet pass. Breaking away, Barger decided to go to his bread-and-butter shot, depositing a quick wrister from 25 feet out over Woodman\’s left shoulder and just under the crossbar, rather than skating in and taking his chances with the goalie at his crease.
The teams will play twice more, Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. MST and at 12:15 MDT Sunday. Both games will be heard live on 600 ESPN El Paso and at 600ESPNElPaso.com
El Paso will play host either to the Renegades or to the Knights in the best-of-three first round of the Thorne Cup Playoffs next weekend with home games Friday, March 15 and Saturday, March 16 at 7:30 p.m. MDT, and Sunday, March 17 at 4:30 p.m., if necessary.
For tickets and information, contact the Rhinos\’ front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to www.elpasorhinos.com.
Follow this link for the official game stats courtesy of pointstreak.com: http://pointstreak.com/prostats/boxscore.html?gameid=2031545