All of the hype became reality on Friday night at the Sierra Providence Events Center. The two best teams in the WSHL put on a show of epic proportions. In round one of this championship fight, the El Paso Rhinos came out on top by a final score of 4-3.
It was a rough start for the Rhinos as the visiting Idaho Jr. Steelheads jumped out to a one goal lead only three minutes into the game when Idaho’s regular season leading scorer, Victor Carlsson, poked a rebound past goaltender Adam Vay. Four minutes later Johannes Yucel and Robert Neuwirth would net goals 13 seconds apart and put the Rhinos in a 3-0 hole. Goaltender Adam Vay was pulled and replaced with back-up goaltender Alek Lazarski.
Before the first period ended, the Rhinos showed some signs of life when regular season leading goal scorer Jiri Pestuka poked home a rebound following Brennan Johnsson’s shot from the top of the left circle.
The Rhinos came out with guns blazing in the second period – the only period where El Paso outshot the visitors – 13-9. Seven and a half minutes into the period, the Rhinos playoff leading point getter – Marek Langhammer – poked in a scrappy rebound.
At 12:18 of the second period Pestuka received the first penalty of the night for either team after boarding an Idaho player in the offensive zone. The Rhinos penalty kill quickly overcame Vay’s early troubles as the story of the night.
Pestuka’s penalty was killed without allowing a single shot. Three minutes later, the penalty kill unit would put one in the net only seconds after David Brancik received a two minute penalty for hooking. Clearly all of the momentum had swung back the Rhinos’ way after tying the game at 3-3.
Ten seconds before the end of the second period, Pestuka would score the goal of the night. Forward Sebastian Borg centered a pass to Pestuka who was ready with his stick held high. Pestuka blasted the winning goal into the top corner over Idaho goaltender Tyler Hough’s glove. Until tonight, Hough held a 0.90 goals against average in the playoffs.
The Rhinos survived a 10 shot onslaught by the Steelheads in the last few minutes of the game – including a huge save by Lazarski with only 1.9 seconds remaining. On the night, Lazarski stopped 22 shots in his first playoff action this season.
The Rhinos will be looking to win the last game of the season in El Paso tomorrow night at 7:30. The team will head to Idaho next weekend to finish up the Thorne Cup Championship best of 5 series.
Come on out to the Sierra Providence Events Center to support the team and have a chance to bid on the very popular orange jersey’s that the Rhinos are wearing this weekend.
– Jason Green