The number one team in the Western States Hockey League and arguably all of Tier III junior hockey all season long, the El Paso Rhinos capped off another banner year by winning their first Thorne Cup since 2009, as they downed the three-time defending champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads 7-3 in front of a rowdy home crowd.
Keeping their perfect record in 2014 in tact, the Rhinos ran their overall winning streak to 33 games by going 9-0-0 in the post-season, including sweeps of the Dallas Snipers and Texas Brahmas in the divisional rounds and wins over the only two teams to previously defeat them this season, the Fresno Monsters and Idaho Jr. Steelheads.
Playing in front of another sellout crowd, the Rhinos were as close to unstoppable as you’ll see, as they came on in spurts throughout the night, scored in bunches and answered Idaho’s comeback attempts immediately, with a number of Cory Herman’s deadline additions leading the way.
A great match-up all around, the spotlight was on the two men between the pipes, as a pair of Washington state natives and the top two goaltenders in the tournament, Bryce Fink of El Paso and Sean Healy of Idaho went head-to-head.
Flipping the script on the hosts early, the Jr. Steelheads came out flying and carried play over the opening couple of minutes, as Kyle Grabowski’s top line of Dak Dice, Victor Carlsson andMacky Power had their feet moving from the drop of the puck.
Fink provided a calming influence in net for El Paso however and Healy did the same at the other end for Idaho, as the Rhinos picked up their play and forced him to make a number of stops, including one on Matthew Plesa that the entire arena thought was in the net.
Just seconds after Idaho successfully killed off El Paso’s first power play opportunity of the night, a feat in itself, the Rhinos took a 1-0 lead, with their speed on the rush again being their biggest weapon.
Picking up a loose puck in the neutral zone, shifty forward Tom Bartel broke down the wing, outwaited an Idaho defenseman and elevated a pass right onto the stick of the streaking David Nelson, who went to the backhand to beat an outstretched Healy at 8:23.
Knowing full well what the Rhinos can do when they get on a roll, the Jr. Steelheads came right back and mustered a few chances of their own but Fink made three monumental saves in a row to keep them off the board with 6:51 left in the period.
Breaking in on a two-on-one rush, Dak Dice sent a pass over to Hunter Lester for what looked like a sure goal. Sliding left to right, Fink stretched out into the full splits to stop the original chance, the first rebound by Macky Power and the second put back by Dice, before holding on for the whistle to the delight of the capacity crowd.
Idaho kept coming late in the period and found a way to make the Rhinos chase for a bit but as usual, the Rhinos continued to convert on any chance they were given and the home team pushed its lead to 2-0 with 2:32 left in the period.
Going to work on a five-on-three power play, the Rhinos struck just as the Jr. Steelheads got a man out of the box to reduce the advantage to just five-on-four. David Nelson corralled a loose puck at the bottom of the right circle and shielded it away from a defender, before spinning around and finding Austin Hoff at the bottom of the opposite circle, who beat Healy over the glove.
The Jr. Steelheads came out to start the second period and got exactly what they needed early on, as they attempted to mount a comeback like the Phoenix Knights were able to do the night before, asJesper Jensen threw a shot on goal that was kicked away by Fink but Macky Power put the rebound home to make it 2-1 just 1:32 into the period.
Another area the Rhinos excel in is their ability to respond quickly following a goal against and they came right back to take a two-goal lead back just 1:18 later.
Planting himself in front of the net again, Austin Hoff, another Washington native, dug a loose puck out of a pile and snuck one by Healy at 2:50, swinging the momentum right back in the direction of the Rhinos.
Shortly thereafter, Idaho then got their first chance on the power play but it was cut short after Oskar Af Bjur got called for interfering with Matthew Plesa, who did a good job of selling the call.
After the short four-on-four period, the Rhinos took to the power play once again and made it 4-1, with Hoff involved again. The big winger showed great patience with the puck, walking out of the corner and drawing a defender to him, before feeding Chris Wilhite at the faceoff dot, who blistered one under the bar at 9:09.
Reeling now, Idaho pulled Healy, who didn’t have much help on any of the four goals scored on him and brought in Danny Kowalski in an attempt to turn the tide, a similar move to the one that worked for them in the 2012 Thorne Cup Finals, also held in El Paso, after which they came back to defeat the Dallas Ice Jets in overtime.
Idaho responded coming out of the timeout and started to make some noise in the El Paso zone for the first time since they got on the board early in the period and Jesper Jensen quickly pulled the visitors back within two with 6:35 left in the frame.
Answering quickly, for what seemed like the 100th time of the week, Kalvis Ozols blasted a slap shot by Kowalski after Hoff drew a hooking penalty, to make it 5-2 not even two minutes after Idaho showed some life.
Idaho did have another chance to get back within two late in the period, but they couldn’t get one past Fink on a lengthy five-on-three power play, as the Rhinos headed to the locker room up 5-2, despite shots being 26-19 in Idaho’s favor at the time.
Needing a push early in the third to have any shot at a comeback, the Jr. Steelheads gave up what ended up being the dagger 6:11 in. Jiri Pestuka’s perfect stretch pass split two diving Idaho defenders and found the tape of David Nelson, who broke in all-alone and made no mistake, beating Kowalski over the shoulder to make it 6-2.
One of the few veterans left in the Idaho lineup, with injuries and suspensions to a few others, Dak Dice brought the Jr. Steelheads back within three with his goal at 12:08, as he beat Fink with another rebound chance.
After Dice’s goal however, the Jr. Steelheads, short-benched and winded, had trouble navigating through the neutral zone and failed to find another push.
Nelson completed his hat-trick by sending a puck into the empty net with 52 seconds left on the clock and the celebration ensued shortly thereafter, as the Rhinos prevailed by a score of 7-3.
On his way to being named the Most Valuable Player and Top Goaltender at the Thorne Cup Finals, Fink turned away 32 of the 35 shots he faced, including a number of jaw-droppers to get the win. David Nelson said his goodbyes to the El Paso crowd with three goals and an assist, Austin Hoff had two goals and a helper and Andrew Bradford, Jiri Pestuka and Chris Wilhite each recorded a pair of points.
A huge reason for Idaho’s improbable run, Sean Healy allowed four goals on 17 shots, none of which could really be blamed solely on him and took the loss in just about 30 minutes of playing time. After coming on in relief, Danny Kowalski stopped 9 of the 11 shots he faced, while Jesper Jensen was the only Idaho skater to record multiple points in the loss, as the Swede had a goal and two assists.
Thorne Cup favorites for most of the season, especially once they began their second half run and then got even stronger with a number of key deadline additions, the Rhinos had it all and will go down as one of the most dominant teams in WSHL history.
Cory Herman continues to churn out competitive teams with a top notch program that has become a true destination for junior hockey players and their journey isn’t done yet, as they’ll represent the WSHL at the United Hockey Union National Championships in Las Vegas just over a week from now, where they’ll undoubtedly be favorites again.
Idaho put it all on the line and did a heck of a job to make it this far and not just pack it in after losing in the division finals two weeks ago. With their most inexperienced team in years, they just pushed harder, trusted their systems and in the end, still had a shot at a fourth straight Thorne Cup title.
Their reign may be done for now but they’re still the epitome of a great organization, winning three league titles in their first five seasons and moving a number of players onto higher levels in the process. They still have a shot at their second straight United Hockey Union National Championship, as they’ll join the Rhinos in Las Vegas on April 16.
Thorne Cup Most Valuable Player and Top Goaltender: Bryce Fink (El Paso Rhinos)
Remaining All-Thorne Cup Team:
Kalvis Ozols (El Paso Rhinos)
Chris Wilhite (El Paso Rhinos)
Ben Hull (Idaho Jr. Steelheads)
Nick Kujawa (Phoenix Knights)
Austin Hoff (El Paso Rhinos)
David Nelson (El Paso Rhinos)
Peter Plesa (El Paso Rhinos)
Victor Carlsson (Idaho Jr. Steelheads)
Dak Dice (Idaho Jr. Steelheads)
Ryan McNeely (Phoenix Knights)
Jimmy Peplinski (Ogden Mustangs)
Story by Brent Maranto does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Western States Hockey League as a whole