The Western States Hockey League playoffs began last weekend. More precisely, the Midwest Division of the WSHL playoffs started last Friday. The El Paso Rhinos were sitting at home watching Tulsa take on Springfield and Wichita face off with Dallas. Sitting home in this case was not a bad thing.
The El Paso Rhinos clinched first place in the division a few weeks ago and have known for a while that they would have a “bye” through the first round of the playoffs. Even before the last weekend of the regular season’s heated series with the Oklahoma City Blazers, both teams knew that they would be sitting home the first weekend of the playoffs. Many Rhinos players – including forward Gavin Abbott – feel that the week off before the playoff grind began was much needed.
“Guys are always bumped up and bruised up so, anytime you get a rest to regroup and get your body back to normal that’s always good,” said Abbott.
Forward Sebastian Borg – who finished the season second on the team in points with 74 – feels that many of his teammates were looking forward to the time off as well.
“A lot of guys are real happy for it. A lot of guys have injuries and we have a lot of guys who are not playing, also. We get some guys back now,” said Borg, “It’s going to be a really good deal for us to have the week off.”
The team continued to practice on the same schedule that they have all season – a season in which they finished in first place, 14 points ahead of the second place Blazers. Apart from resting and recuperating, Abbott says that the team had no plans to keep up with the first round of the playoffs.
“We won’t really focus too much on what’s going on around the league, as long as we come when it’s our turn to show up. We’ve just got to show up every night,” said Abbott, “We’re not really concerned about anybody else.”
The Rhinos will host the Dallas Snipers, the lowest seeded team of last weekend’s winners. The Rhinos record – should they win all the way through the playoffs – will allow them to play the next three rounds at home. Should they reach the Thorne Cup Finals, they will choose two home games or three — in all but one instance. If they face the Idaho Junior Steelheads – the only team in the league with a better record – Idaho will choose whether to have two or three home games.
The fact that the Rhinos have home ice advantage for the foreseeable future is a big difference maker for the team. On the season, the Rhinos were 21-2-0-0 at home. The team’s only two home losses came at the hands of the Oklahoma City Blazers — who they could only meet in the Divisional Finals the weekend of March 20-22. The importance of playing at home is not lost on Borg.
“We are really strong at home and everybody loves to play here in front of these amazing fans. No one else has these fans and they give us a lot of energy,” said Borg.
The Thorne Cup and the National Championship have resided here in El Paso with the Rhinos and their fans for the last year. Abbott is looking forward to defending the championships but knows that being the defending champion does not mean that a win is guaranteed.
“It’s different than just going out there and having nothing to lose. We want to keep what we’ve earned. We just can’t give an inch. It’s going to be a tough battle,” said Abbott, “Just because we have the cup doesn’t mean it’s coming back. We’ve got to work for it.”
Much the way that the Rhinos are practicing the same way as the regular season — the team is focused on only the next game, like they have been all year. Starting on Friday the 13th, the Rhinos will be looking to be a nightmare for whoever it is who comes to El Paso throughout the playoffs. Borg hopes that this philosophy will take the Rhinos back to the top of the heap where they want to be.
“We’re just going to take it one team at a time and see how far we can go. We have a great group of guys this year and if we just show up every time and play, we can go very far – and try to defend our championship,” said Borg.
– Jason Green