The Rhinos sweep the Rampage with two straight wins in the best-of-three series and advance to the Western States Hockey League championship series against the team that beat them soundly for the title last season, the Phoenix Polar Bears, who swept the San Diego Surf Dogs for the WSHL’s Western Division title.
The Mid-West crown also gives El Paso a berth in the Junior A Tier III national championship tourney in Marlboro, MA, in three weeks.
Hayden Kowalski opened the scoring on the power play, tapping Tad Norris’ pass by Tulsa goalie Mike Davis at 4:46 of the first period.
Exactly 50 seconds later, Kevin Davis found defenseman Costi Hinn, whose beautiful backhand beatDavis top shelf.
Forty-eight seconds after that, it was Marcus Wilhite rifling in a shot from left circle, and suddenly the Rhinos had built a lead the Rampage would not overcome.
After a scoreless second period, El Paso added a second power play goal as Bill Krueger scored on another of his patented hard-work shots at the goalie’s crease off a pass from Tad Norris and Costi Hinn at 3:17 of the third.
Matt Cattivera ruined Rhinos goaltender Arthur Hollinger’s shutout at 8:48, but Nick Gorup got El Paso its four-goal lead back with an unassisted power play goal at 9:41.
Hollinger stopped 30 of 31 Rampage shots and was named First Star of the Game for handling almost everything Tulsa threw his way.
El Paso ’s three power play goals puts them at the top of the league, scoring on over 29 percent of their opportunities with the man advantage.
The Rhinos win sets up an interesting rematch for the WSHL championship, as Phoenix came to El Paso last year and beat the Rhinos in two straight, 8-1 and 6-0, to keep their crown.
El Paso head coach Cory Herman realized then what he needed to compete at the Polar Bears’ level, not to mention what the Rhinos would require at the national championship tournament.
El Paso went three games and out at the Silver Cup tourney last season inGrand Rapids, MI
Perhaps the Rhinos have found an answer to their questions from last year’s post-season shortcomings, as an El Paso side that played much better defense with a much deeper bench beat Phoenix, 5-4, at the WSHL Showcase in San Antonio last December.
The best-of-three WSHL championship series begins at 7 p.m. MDT, Friday, March 14th, in Chandler , AZ. The game can be heard online at www.elpasorhinos.com, with live game tracking provided at www.pointstreak.com. Just key “WSHL” into the hockey searchbar and follow the links.