The first place El Paso Rhinos and division runner-up Oklahoma City Blazers squared off for the final time this regular season on Sunday. On Saturday night — in a game that featured all of the intensity of the likely playoff match-up between these two – the Rhinos lost for only the fifth time this season and the third to the Blazers. On Sunday, the Rhinos made sure they would not lose for a sixth time with an emphatic 5-1 victory.
The chippiness that had prevailed throughout the series was somewhat missing during the opening stanza. Two interference penalties – one for each team – is all there was to show for a very fast paced clean period. The Rhinos outshot the Blazers eight to seven but neither team was able to sneak one into the net.
In the second period, the Rhinos would not be denied. The chippiness was back between the divisions’ top two teams and so was the precise shots that have been the hall mark of the Rhinos’ European forwards. Fifteen seconds after OKC center Petr Kobes and Rhino forward Jesse Esposito received offsetting roughing penalties, the teams’ top two point scorers once again connected on the opening goal. Forward Sebastian Borg centered a pass to forward Jiri Pestuka who wristed a shot past OKC goaltender Jakub Krejci.
As the penalty minutes picked up, so did the scoring. Just as El Paso goaltender Alek Lazarski headed off the ice and an extra skater came on due to a delayed penalty call, the “le grand rouge” connection made it 2-0 Rhinos. Forward Jordan Cullum tapped in the rebound from defenseman Patrick Gleason’s shot and the Rhinos never looked back. Just before the period ended, forward Marek Langhammer pushed in a power play rebound – this was Langhammer’s first of two goals during a number one star performance.
Forward Mitch Cobby wristed a shot over the goalie’s glove to make it 4-0 Rhinos only four minutes into the third period. Soon after, Langhammer blasted a slap shot from just inside the blue line and the Rhinos were looking much better than they did on Saturday. In fact, it looked for a while like Lazarski would have a shutout until a Blazer shot trickled in for a final score of 5-1. Numerous fighting and roughing penalties dotted the third period as the Blazers showed their disapproval of the Rhinos big victory.
The Rhinos take the ice again the weekend of March 13th in the second round of the Thorne Cup Playoffs. Two teams will play next weekend for the privilege of facing the 41-5-0-0 Rhinos in the Sierra Providence Events Center.
– Jason Green