Despite having a lower seed at the USA Hockey Junior National Tournament after losing to the Idaho Steelheads in the WSHL’s Thorne Cup Finals, the El Paso Rhinos won in group play and have made the semifinals for the first time in franchise history.
El Paso started off their fourth trip to Nationals by grinding out a 4-4 tie with Granite City Lumberjacks on Friday, then escaped with a 6-5 win over the Northern Cyclones on Saturday.
But, tied atop the group with Granite City, the Rhinos saved their best effort for last, pounding the Chicago Hitmen, 7-1, Sunday afternoon. With Granite City losing to Northern, 4-3, El Paso earns a spot in the junior hockey version of the Frozen Four.
Frankie Posillico started and ended the Rhinos’ scoring Sunday with a pair of power play goals, and in between El Paso got scoring from four other Rhinos. Mike Fazio also tallied twice, along with Tyler Ridgedell, Tyler Beasley, and Juan Tellez.
After allowing a goal in the opening period, Rhinos’ goalie Trent Casper saved every other shot, stopping 24 of 25 before getting a well-deserved rest from head coach Cory Herman. Eddie Fritz finished out the final 10:48 of the game in net for El Paso, stopping all six shots he faced.
The Rhinos’ reward is a rematch with the Steelheads Monday for a shot at a national title.
Idaho also finished atop its group by going 2-0-1, including a 6-1 win over the defending champion St. Louis Junior Blues Sunday.
El Paso defeated the Steelheads at the Western States Hockey League Showcase in Las Vegas, NV, last December, but was swept by Idaho in the WSHL’s championship series last month.
Either way, the league will have a team in the championship game Tuesday. The Walpole Express takes on the Helena Bighorn tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. MDT in the first semifinal, followed by the Rhinos and the Steelheads at 5 p.m. MDT. Fans can follow the action at www.fasthockey.com, or go to www.pointstreak.com for live in-game stats.