Stefan Brucato scored the natural Texas hat trick and the visiting Idaho Junior Steelheads stayed perfect in El Paso, beating the Rhinos, 5-3, in the first of the three-game “Turkey Bowl” series.
The teams will take Thanksgiving Day off before resuming the series Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. MST.
For their part, the Rhinos will be looking to find a way to keep possession. El Paso\’s passing was a step behind Wednesday night, and the defending Thorne Cup champion Steelheads haven\’t missed a beat since sweeping the Rhinos out of the championship series in the Events Center last March.
Brucato got Idaho on the board at 6:45 of the first period, pouncing on a short rebound off El Paso goaltender Brandon Smolarek.
Just :59 into the second period, a bad Rhinos clearing pass was picked off by the Steelheads’ Filip Kasaly. Tyler Kruenegel found Brucato at the far post to make El Paso pay.
To their credit, the Rhinos found some jump in the second frame as Dallas Szustak burned his defender with an inside-out move and wristed his shot over Idaho goalie Jordan Kaufer\’s right shoulder at 3:14.
Swedish forward Carl Graf used his ample frame to draw the home team even at 8:26, winning a scrum in front of Kaufer\’s net to push the puck in.
The Steelheads wasted no time in turning up their intensity to match their hosts, and steady passing and possession yielded two more goals for Brucato before the second period was over.
El Paso native and team captain Mike Rivera won a key draw 37 seconds into the third period, dropping the puck to David Nelson who beat Kaufer with a beautiful top-shelf shot from left circle for the power play goal, and again the Rhinos looked to be on the comeback trail.
But Idaho’s Jake Webber ended the rally, ripping an unassisted ishot from above right circle low and past Smolarek at 14:08.
The loss is El Paso\’s first of the season, while the Steelheads improve to 15-2-1, topping the Mountain Conference of the Western States Hockey League.
The Rhinos are 12-1-0 and their 24 points are second in the Mid-West Division to the Dallas Ice Jets’ 27.
For tickets and information on Friday’s and Saturday’s games, contact the Rhinos’ front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to www.elpasorhinos.com.