(EL PASO, TX) — Jiri Pestuka scored the game-winning goal with 10 seconds to play in the second period and goalie Alek Lazarski made it stick, stopping all 22 shots he faced, as the El Paso Rhinos came back from a three-goal deficit to nip the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, 4-3, in Game One of the Thorne Cup Finals.
The defending Thorne Cup and UHU national champions have had lethargic starts against opponents before, but rarely against a team as talented as Idaho, which finished the regular season with the best record in the Western States Hockey League at 42-2-1-1.
It didn’t take the Jr. Steelheads long to make El Paso pay for its slow start, as Victor Carlsson beat Rhinos’ starting goalie, Adam Vay, at of the first, then turned helper at , assisting on Johannes Yucel’s goal to make it 2-0.
Robert Neuwirth scored just 13 seconds later to make it 3-0 for the visitors, chasing Vay from goal in front of a stunned sellout crowd of 1,837.
But that would be all from the Jr. Steelheads; and as the Rhinos’ defense grew stronger and more confident in front of Lazarski, the offense began to rumble to life, too.
Pestuka, the Czech Republic forward who paced the team with 41 goals in the regular season, found an avenue to the net through the right circle, scoring at of the first to throw his drowning team a lifeline going into first intermission.
Martin Han’l stole a mishandled puck at the Idaho blue line and pressed down the left wing before sliding the puck to a waiting Marek Langhammer, who out-waited Idaho goaltender Tyler Hough before walking the puck in at of the second period to make it a one-goal game.
Then, just trying to kill off a penalty, Bryton Tomko’s physical forechecking yielded the puck in the corner of the Jr. Steelheads’ defensive zone. Tomko popped the puck out to Amarillo native Kendall Craig, who threw a backhanded shot at Hough that caught a piece of an Idaho defenseman’s stick before rolling in for a short-handed goal that tied the game, 3-3, at .
Tomko’s physical play and a nose for loose pucks had helped set the tone in the Rhinos’ rally, and it set up the game-winner. In the dying seconds of the frame, the Pittsburgh native was once again in the right place at the right time, feasting on another Idaho turnover before passing to Borg who rolled it to Pestuka skating hard into the slot.
Pestuka caught all of the puck, one-timing a blast that Hough had no chance to stop and putting it just under the crossbar at of the second period to give the hosts their first lead of the game.
Lazarski did the rest, stopping all 10 Jr. Steelheads’ shots in the third frame as he did the other 12 through the first two periods to earn First Star of the Game.
The Rhinos lead the best-of-five Thorne Cup Finals, 1-0, and Game Two is set for , night in the El Paso County Events Center before the Thorne Cup Finals finishes in McCall, ID. With the WSHL’s best regular season record, Idaho will have home ice advantage for the final games of the series.
Tickets for the final El Paso Rhinos home game of the season are available at the El Paso County Coliseum box office throughout the daywww.elpasorhinos.com. . For tickets and information, contact the Rhinos’ front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to the team’s website,