After the Rhinos took a 2-0 lead into the locker room at the first intermission, El Paso seemed to have survived its sluggish start against the only team to have beaten them in the regular season.
Parker Harrison drew first blood for El Paso exactly seven minutes into the game, followed by the Rhinos’ second short-handed goal of the playoffs from Eric LaBounty at 16:48.
El Paso had a league-leading 24 short-handed goals in the regular season.
But, returning to the Sierra Providence Events Center for their second straight division final series against the Rhinos, the Rampage were not about to go as quietly as they did last season, losing twice, including a 7-1 pasting in last season’s Game One.
Justin Giles got things started for the visitors on the power play, 4:13 into the second frame – the last Tulsa player to touch a puck that caromed off the end board glass, popped back into the slot over El Paso goaltender Arthur Hollinger’s head, and was deflected into the net.
No big deal for the Rampage – ugly goals count too – andTulsa ’s bench was suddenly energized; even moreso after Kyle Smythe and Brandon Castro scored power play goals just 24 seconds apart to give the Rampage their first lead, at 10:10 and 10:34, respectively.
Properly challenged, the Rhinos answered in the third frame as Wilhite created a rebound, firing a puck kick-saved by standout Tulsa goalie Mike Davis. But the rebound went straight to Bill Krueger skating in from left wing, and the forward one-timed it for the tying goal at 8:32.
Things would stay tangled until overtime, as El Paso survived some hairy defensive moments in the sudden death extra period, and was unable to convert on their sixth power play of the evening.
But in the end, centerman Nick Gorup won a big draw in the Rampage zone, sending it to Krueger who zipped it to Wilhite behind the defense. Skating down the middle of the slot on Davis , Wilhite’s shake-and-bake got the big goalie down before the forward faded to the right for the back-hander and the goal and a 1-0 series lead in the best-of-three series.
Tulsa will meet the Rhinos again Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. MST for Game Two. If the Rampage win, Game Three will be Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Should El Paso win, it’s on to the Western States Hockey League Championship Final, to be played at the Western Division champion’s home ice, and then on to the big prize – the Silver Cup, Junior A Tier III’s national championship tournament.
In the Western Division championship, the defending league champion Phoenix Polar Bears downed the San Diego Surf, 6-3, to take a 1-0 series lead.
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