The Rhinos finish the season with only one loss in regulation – a 48-1-2 mark that gives them 98 points, one point better than defending WSHL champion Phoenix .
The Polar Bears finish 48-2-1 with 97 points to top the league’s Western Division heading into the divisional semifinals next weekend.
El Paso will host the Colorado Outlaws in a best-of-three series with games next Friday, Feb. 29, and Saturday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m. MST. If necessary, Game Three would be Sunday, March 2, at 5:30 p.m. MST at theSierra-ProvidenceEventsCenter .
Phoenix had already won going into Sunday’s regular season finale, but the Rhinos started with little urgency despite knowing they would have to win to earn the league’s top marks.
The Diablos converted their first two power plays into goals in the opening frame as Adam Fisher and Malcolm Richards gave the visitors their first lead in the three-game series.
Bill Krueger scored one of his patented hard-work goals at 13:25 of the first to bring the Rhinos within one before the first intermission, and Marcus Wilhite tied the game just 46 seconds into the second period. But Jeremy Wolski deflected Jacob Brown’s shot past El Paso goalie Anthony Natali to give San Antonio just over three minutes later to reclaim the lead.
Tough Diablos’ defense made it stick for the rest of the period, asEl Paso was held to single-digit shot totals for both the first and second frames – nine shots in the first period and just five in the second.
But simple advice in the locker room from a reserved head coach Cory Herman was all it took to unleash the offense in the final 20 minutes.
“I need 20 guys to give me everything they’ve got for the next 20 minutes,” said Herman, according to those in the home team locker.
It was a simple realization of what was at stake that drew the best from the 20 players on El Paso ’s active roster Sunday.
It started with Nick Gorup, who tied the game a second time on the power play, poaching a rebound that came right to him as San Antonio goaltender Jason Barden deflected Marcus Wilhite’s close-range shot at 4:13 of the third.
Seconds later, Rhinos’ centerman Jeffery Schmudlach tipped a Diablos’ pass just inside the El Paso zone. ParkerHarrison was waiting and the race was on to the other side of the ice. Harrison slipped a pass from left wing to Kevin Davis barreling down the middle and Davis tipped the puck past Barden, giving the Rhinos their first lead at 4:38.
Eric LaBounty added what proved to be the game winner, bouncing in a shot from Barden’s right at 7:49 – a much-needed goal, as San Antonio ’s Dylan Otto was awarded a penalty shot with just 50 seconds left in regulation.
Otto made the most of the opportunity, beating Natali stick-side and low. Despite the goal and an empty net, the Diablos could not get the equalizer before the horn, and the Rhinos finish the season taking at least one point in every game they’ve played at home.
Tickets for the playoffs are available at the El Paso County Coliseum box office. For more information, call 915.479.PUCK (7825). Rhinos playoffs games can also be viewed online at www.elpasorhinos.com with a paid subscription.