The Rhinos improve to 31-0-2 and have yet to lose a game outright this season. El Paso’s 64 points leads the Mid-West Division of the Western States Hockey League, while Dallas falls to 10-24-2 and 22 points to remain in fifth place in the division.
El Paso had jumped out to a 2-0 lead courtesy of early goals from Austin Balko and Jimmy Keiling, just 1:15 and 5:54 into the game, respectively.
But the Hawks, who showed improved play at times in their 7-4 loss Saturday night, found yet another gear Sunday, scoring the next three goals to get their first lead in the season series against the Rhinos.
Casey Smith found the back of the net against El Paso starting goaltender Darius Mack at 7:09, followed by Stormy Knight at 11:59 and Logan MacLeod at 17:53.
The Rhinos’ Hayden Kowalski would equalize just 1:05 later to save a lackluster first period for the home team, but the tone was set for Dallas and the Hawks took off in the second 20 minutes.
With El Paso on an early power play, Smith found himself the recipient of a slow pass near the Rhinos blue line and walked in untouched, five-holing Mack to put Dallas back in front, 4-3, with the shorthanded goal. Smith’s two-goal performance earned him Third Star of the Game.
Dallas ’ confidence was sky high and the Hawks rode momentum to yet another goal as Jeff Barberis made it 5-3 with his tally at 10:19.
But as it has all season long thus far, El Paso showed both its heart and its talent, trimming the deficit to a goal before the end of the second stanza on Zach Hale’s power play strike at 16:58.
Head coach Cory Herman sent a message to his players, replacing Mack with goalie Arthur Hollinger to start the third period. The Rhinos showed the message was received, loud and clear, allowing a mere three Dallas shots in the third frame, the Hawks’ lowest tally for any period in the three-game series – none of which made it past Hollinger.
And El Paso ’s offense finally found its focus, beginning with Nick Gorup’s beautiful backhanded equalizer that beat a solid Mark Allen in net, top shelf on the power play at 5:28.
The Rhinos had regained momentum, but Dallas would not yield until close to the end of regulation. It took a great play from centerman Eric LaBounty to finally break through.
With just over 90 seconds left in regulation, the Rhinos earned a draw stick side to Allen. LaBounty won the draw then skated straight at Allen, beating him with a hard wrister to the far post at 18:29. The whole play took fewer than three seconds, but it was all El Paso would need, though the hosts would get one more.
Desperate to get Allen off the ice for a sixth skater in the final minute, the Hawks were hounded by a relentless Rhinos backcheck that never let the visitors into the attacking zone, pushing Dallas further back until the Hawks turned the puck over in their own end to Zach Kohn. Kohn flipped a pass to Kowalski who fired his shot from high in the slot, beating Allen glove-side low for the final goal with just one second left in the game.
LaBounty’s game-winner earned the forward First Star of the Game, followed by Kowalski for his two-goal effort, and Smith.
El Paso will head to Lafayette, LA, to play the Cajun Catahoulas next Friday, Saturday and Sunday before returning to theSierra-ProvidenceEventsCenter to face the Colorado Outlaws in a three-game series beginning Friday, Jan. 25. The January 25th game has been designated military night, as the Rhinos honor military members and their families.El Paso will auction off its special military-style jerseys to be worn at the game and the Rhinos are planning all sorts of pre-game festivities, including an exhibition of military hardware and a climbing wall.
Special discounts will also be available. For more information, please call the Rhinos’ front office at 915-479-PUCK (7825).