(EL PASO, TX) — David Brancik scored the game-winning goal 85 seconds from the end of regulation and the El Paso Rhinos earned an opportunity to hold on to the Thorne Cup with a nail-biting 3-2 win over the Ogden Mustangs Saturday night.
The defending league and national champions, the Rhinos will square off against the Idaho Junior Steelheads for the Cup beginning next weekend.
Saturday’s game had many of the same hallmarks as Friday’s 2-1 win for the hosts. Again, the Rhinos gave up six penalties. Again, Ogden scored its first goal on the power play. And, again, the Mustangs outshot El Paso.
Again, though, goaltender Adam Vay came to play. The 6-foot-6 former netminder for the Hungarian junior national team saw 77 shots on the weekend, but allowed only three. Saturday, Ogden out-worked the Rhinos to earn 34 shots to El Paso’s 22.
The Mustangs also scored the initial goal in the first period. David Clements blue line blast was bounced past Vay by Clay Cross at 10:38 of the opening frame — a power play goal after the Rhinos’ Lukas Znosko was whistled for charging at 9:42.
But Saturday, the Rhinos found all the offensive answers they needed from their second line of Marek Langhammer, Gavin Abbott and Martin Han’l.
Langhammer scored El Paso’s first goal, careening down the slot to chip a rebound from Abbott’s shot over Ogden goalie Andreas Pettersson just a minute into the second period.
It was Abbott’s turn next, as the lanky forward from upstate New York found himself low in the slot, backhanding Han’l’s pass by Pettersson at 7:38 of the second to give the hosts the lead.
Another hard-work deflection just as the Rhinos had killed off another penalty notched the game at 2-2, as Andreas Zollner got a piece of Jon Mencer’s shot from above the circles and tapped it past Vay at 18:16.
But El Paso saved its best for last. The Rhinos did two things in the third period Saturday that they had not managed to do in any of the other five periods they played this weekend — stay out of the penalty box and outshoot the Mustangs (9-7).
Near the end of a bruising, hard-fought final frame, El Paso’s work paid dividends.
With the fans on their feet for a draw to Pettersson’s stick side, Langhammer won the face-off to Han’l who sent it his Czech Republic countryman, Brancik.
Brancik’s drive was off the ice — usually easy pickings for goaltenders — but Pettersson was partially screened, and the puck careened off the goalie and into the net at 18:35.
Though the Mustangs emptied their own net for the extra attacker in the final minute of the game, they could not keep the puck in the El Paso zone to set up a shot; and the Rhinos got to celebrate the sweep (and not having to play Sunday) with the home fans.
By virtue of having the best record in the Western States Hockey League’s regular season, the Junior Steelheads have the choice of starting the best-of-five Thorne Cup Finals at home for two guaranteed games or hosting El Paso for the last three games, if necessary.
Either way, there will be at least one game of the Thorne Cup Finals played in the Sun City. Keep in touch via the Rhinos’ website (www.elpasorhinos.com) or social media to find out when.
For tickets and information, contact the El Paso Rhinos’ front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to www.elpasorhinos.com. Tickets are also sold at the El Paso County Coliseum box office.