For the third straight season, the El Paso Rhinos are champions of the Mid-West Division, beating San Antonio, 9-3, to sweep the Diablos out of the Western States Hockey League playoffs.
Late-season acquisition Nick Gualano scored a hat trick and, though the Rhinos were uncharacteristically outshot by the visitors, 35-19, El Paso goalie Andrew Duff stopped 32 of 35 shots to preserve a solid offensive effort.
With the victory, Rhinos head coach Cory Herman picks up his 150th win in only three seasons at the helm of a team that he has turned from intention to invention since the end of his playing career with the old El Paso Buzzards almost a decade ago. It has been nothing but steady progress from youth hockey to high school hockey to El Paso’s current status at the Tier III, Junior A level.
The defending Thorne Cup Champions of the WSHL, the Rhinos will play host to the finals next weekend. El Paso lost in the finals to the Phoenix Polar Bears in its inaugural season, but returned the favor the next season, taking the Thorne Cup from the Polar Bears in Phoenix.
As they did in Friday night’s 6-3 Game One win, the Rhinos scored first. Defenseman Andrew Ketterer laced his shot past a screened Mike Becker in net for the Diablos at 11:35 of the opening period.
Zach Goller cracked a shot from the right circle to the far post, beating Becker at 14:30 to make it 2-0 in the first intermission.
In Friday night’s Game One, San Antonio got a quick start in the second period to climb back in the game. Saturday night was not as kind to the visitors.
A quick Diablos penalty 34 seconds into the second frame was turned into a goal just 24 seconds later by El Paso’s all-time playoff power play goal scorer Bill Krueger, who notched the 11th of his career.
San Antonio quickly changed goaltenders to Tony Maroney, who was 2-0 against the Tulsa Rampage in the Diablos’ first-round wins. But it only took another nine seconds for the Rhinos to tally again, as Shane Callahan found the net at 1:07 of the second.
El Paso made it 5-0 on Jeffery Schmudlach’s breakaway strike at 5:45 of the second before Malcolm Richards’ short-handed goal beat Duff at 12:44 to get San Antonio on the board.
Another power play goal from Gualano at 14:07 made it 6-1. The Diablos’ Wes Landsem scored on the power play at 15:30 to cut the lead again. But Duff, frustrated by the two goals allowed, looked for payback. Taking an opportunity to look up ice with just over a minute left in the second, Duff spotted Gualano near the San Antonio blue line.
Duff’s two-line pass caught Gualano in stride and the winger made no mistake, getting Maroney to commit before sliding the puck under the goaltender’s outstretched pads at 18:51 to make it 7-2 going into the second intermission.
Eric LaBounty made it 8-2 with a power play tip-in just 1:46 into the third, and Gualano notched the hat trick unassisted at 13:49 to wrap El Paso’s scoring.
The Diablos’ Patrick Bernier roofed a shot over Duff’s shoulder at 15:38 for the game’s final goal, but El Paso had all but won its fourth straight in the playoffs for the third straight season and moves on to its third Thorne Cup Finals.
The Rhinos will face the winner of the Western Division Finals, which will go the full three games as the Phoenix Polar Bears avenged a 4-1 Game One loss to the Valencia Flyers and tied the series with a 7-1 win Saturday. Game Three is Sunday and the winner will come to El Paso for the best-of-three Thorne Cup Finals beginning next Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. MDT. If necessary, Game Three will be played Sunday, March 15th, at 5:30 p.m. MDT.
All Rhinos games are streamed live with a link provided at the Rhinos website, www.elpasorhinos.com, and MetroSports Southwest, Cable Channel 24, will have the replay of Saturday’s Game Two at 2:30 p.m. MDT Sunday afternoon. Both Mid-West Division Finals games can be seen on Time Warner Cable’s MetroSports On Demand, Digital Cable Channel 832.