A light schedule of games over the holiday weekend didn’t make for a lack of action across the Western States Hockey League, as three of the top four teams in the league took to the ice, while a few others jostled for position prior to the Western States Shootout.
Below is a summary of each weekend series/game:
El Paso Rhinos (15-0-0, 1st in Midwest Division) @ Wichita Jr. Thunder (4-17-1, 5th in Midwest Division)
Three-game series in Wichita, Kansas
The Idaho/Fresno series garnered most of the headlines this week and understandably so but the only undefeated team left, the El Paso Rhinos, quietly went about their business by picking up their fifth sweep of the season, taking down the Wichita Jr. Thunder with ease.
The series opener on Friday night was close early on, as the Jr. Thunder didn’t go down without a fight but the Rhinos were too much as the game went along, winning by a score of 9-3.
Leading scorer Dakota Beaulieu gave the Rhinos the lead with a goal at 12:07 of the opening period but Wichita answered back to tie it exactly two minutes later on a Carter Suski power play marker.
The Rhinos responded to score three more goals before the end of the period and wound up notching seven straight, before Wichita finally answered with a Keegan Hull goal at 5:42 of the third period.
After Peter Plesa’s third goal of the night made it 9-2 in favor of the Rhinos, Suski’s second for Wichita ended the scoring, in a 9-3 El Paso victory.
Beaulieu and Plesa each finished the night with a team-high four points for El Paso, while Braden Smith notched three assists to lead the Jr. Thunder.
Wichita was able to convert on two of their 10 power play chances and hold El Paso scoreless over their three opportunities with the man advantage but the Rhinos, who set a league record with 38 short handed goals last year, notched three short handed goals in the game, which helped lift them to the decisive win.
The Rhinos peppered Wichita goaltender Jake Larson with 75 shots and he did well to stop 66 in the loss, while Adam Vay stopped all but three of the 35 shots he faced in the Rhinos net to remain perfect on the season.
Braden Smith gave the Jr. Thunder a lead with a goal just 22 seconds into the opening period of game two but all it did was spark another Rhinos roll, as they came back to score five straight and take control of the game in an 11-3 smashing.
Chad Cesarz, who began the year playing in the North American Hockey League, had his scoring touch going all night, as the veteran forward picked up five goals in the victory. David Nelson, Trey Hughes and Peter Plesa also enjoyed multi-point games for the Rhinos, who added yet another short handed tally to their league leading total.
Braden Smith, Carter Suski and Keegan Hull each collected a pair of points in the loss for Wichita, who had trouble keeping up with the Rhinos speed and aggression all weekend.
Ian Tjaden started and won his second game of the year for the Rhinos, stopping 35 of the 38 shots he faced, while Marco Medina faced 63 shots in the Wichita crease and stopped 52 in the loss.
Keegan Hull’s power play marker at 3:13 of the opening period gave the Jr. Thunder the early lead in the finale but the Rhinos notched four goals of their own before the end of the period and 12 of the next 13 total, in a 12-2 victory and series sweep.
15 of the Rhinos 18 skaters recorded at least a point in the win, with defenseman Ronald Konecny’s four points leading the way.
Braden Smith and Keegan Hull continued their strong offensive weekends in the loss for Wichita, as each collected a pair of points.
Giving the workhorse Adam Vay another day off, Ian Tjaden won his second straight game in net for the Rhinos, stopping 22 of the 24 shots he faced, while Dakota McDonald stopped 37 of 44 before being pulled in favor of Jake Larson in the loss for Wichita.
Playing on the road over the holidays, it would have been easy for the Rhinos to overlook the Jr. Thunder but they did what they had to do and controlled all three games en route to three more victories.
They continue to roll along and play well in all three areas but penalties are starting to become a bit of a problem and something that could bite them, especially with a showcase schedule consisting of games against the likes of Idaho, Fresno and Phoenix.
Wichita had trouble keeping up all weekend and allowed far too many shots to get through to their goaltenders, who have shown the ability to steal a game, if given the chance.
They were able to get a few of their players going offensively however and if they can carry that forward with them, they’ll be able to score with the teams that they’re battling for playoff spots with.
Idaho Jr. Steelheads (18-2-0, 1st in Northwest Division) @ Fresno Monsters (17-3-1, 1st in Western Division)
Three-game series in Fresno, California
One of the fiercest rivalries in the league over the last five years was renewed over the weekend, as the Idaho Jr. Steelheads and Fresno Monsters, both perennial division leaders, met for three in central California.
It was appropriate, in a series starting on Thanksgiving Eve, that the two teams came out hungry on Wednesday night and put on a show for the capacity crowd at Gateway Ice Center.
With emotions running high in a tight opening period, it was the Jr. Steelheads who were able to jump out to a 1-0 lead and hold on to it after 20 minutes of play, thanks to a goal from forward Kyle TenEyck and a huge stop on a penalty shot by goaltender Sean Healy.
The Monsters came out strong to start the second period and forced Idaho to take a few undisciplined penalties and took advantage of their opportunities, as defenseman Mark Shroyer’s power play goal evened things up near the midway point of the period.
Just 1:01 later, Fresno took the lead for the first time in the game, as forward Conner Osborne scored off an assist from Michael Freeman to make it 2-1 in favor of the home team.
After falling behind however, the Jr. Steelheads picked up the pace a notch and began to carry play, eventually tying things up on a Phillip Wong goal at 14:38 and taking the lead for good 2:29 later, as Jesper Jensen beat Fresno goaltender Jerry Kaukinen to make it 3-2 Idaho.
Play really tightened up after the flurry and each team recorded just three shots on goal each in the third period, as the Jr. Steelheads were able to lock it down and hold on for a 3-2 victory.
Veteran forward Tyler Danychuk assisted on both Wong and Jensen’s goal, to lead the Jr. Steelheads offensively, while Healy remained perfect on the season in net, stopping 28 of the 30 shots he faced and moving his record to 12-0-0.
Kaukinen played well in goal for Fresno, stopping 22 of the 25 shots he faced but wound up getting hit with the loss.
After taking Thanksgiving off to rest and fuel-up for the concluding two games of the series, the two teams took to the ice on Friday night for what was another tight contest.
For the second straight game, the Monsters got a power play goal from a defenseman and this time, it gave them a lead, as Gunnar Dircks converted 13:14 into regulation to pace Fresno to a 1-0 lead.
From that point on however, it was all Idaho in the goal column, as they notched three straight en route to a 3-1 victory.
Just 1:37 after Dircks gave Fresno the early lead, Phillip Wong responded to tie things up for Idaho, as the defenseman scored his second goal in as many games.
The Jr. Steelheads carried their momentum over into the second period, where forward Macky Power gave them the lead with a goal at 9:06, with an assist going to Brown-commit, August Von Ungern-Sternberg.
With Idaho still leading 2-1, things opened up more than usual in the third period, with both teams throwing 10 shots on goal, including grade “A” opportunities at each end.
With 49 seconds left before the buzzer however, Von Ungern-Sternberg iced the Idaho win with an empty net goal, as the Jr. Steelheads clinched the series.
Von Ungern-Sternberg’s two points led Idaho on the night, while Sean Healy moved his record to 12-0-0 in net, allowing just one goal on 22 shots and earning the first star of the game.
Austin Piquette got the start in net for the Monsters and took the loss while allowing two goals on 23 shots.
With a sweep imminent, the Monsters offense awoke in the finale on Saturday night, putting forth a complete effort and salvaging a game from the series.
The first of two goals from Kyle Jelenski gave the Monsters a lead just 2:07 into the game and they never gave it up, winning by a score of 5-2.
A trio of veterans, Austin Browning, Filip Winkler and Justin Plate, scored Fresno’s other three goals, while rookie sensation Mike Nolan notched two assists in the win.
Earning the win in net was Austin Piquette, who was strong while stopping 23 of the 25 shots he faced.
Macky Power tallied both of Idaho’s goals, while Sean Healy dropped his first game of the season in net, allowing five goals on 28 shots before being pulled in favor of Danny Kowalski late in the contest.
Idaho was still able to go into hostile territory and take two out of three games from a hated rival and one of the top teams in the league.
Their defense was stifling in games one and two but seemed to let up a bit in Saturday’s finale and Sean Healy was left hung out to dry a few too many times.
They’re still playing at a very high level and are undoubtedly still the team to beat in the league.
Fresno just couldn’t get the offense going in games one and two but showed what they can do when it all came together on Saturday night.
When their veterans get going, along with top newcomers like Mike Nolan and Evan Ingram, they are a very tough team to handle and they also have a defense that has the ability to slow down powerful offenses like Idaho’s.
Two points against the three-time defending champions is nothing to hang their heads about and as we found out earlier today, they’ll have another shot at their rivals, as Fresno will take on Idaho at the 2013 Western States Shootout in Las Vegas.
Southern Oregon Spartans (7-10-1, 4th in Northwest Division) @ Cheyenne Stampede (10-8-1, 3rd in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Cheyenne, Wyoming
The tightest series of the weekend wasn’t in Fresno but instead, came up in Wyoming’s capital, as the Cheyenne Stampede and Southern Oregon Spartans skated to three one-goal games.
The rejuvenated Spartans have been playing much better hockey as of late and started off hot in the opener on Friday, jumping out to a 2-0 lead on a first period goal by defenseman Donny Nagle and second period marker from forward Tyler Spencer.
After falling behind 2-0 early in the second frame, the host Stampede turned up the heat over the remainder of the period and into the third and scored three straight goals to come from behind and win it by a score of 3-2.
Brank Oktavec got the comeback started with a goal that pulled Cheyenne within one, with 1:15 left in the second period.
7:30 into the third, the game was tied up at two after Thayne Trumbull put one home while on the power play and at 12:53, defenseman Jacob Eisenstat notched what would stand up to be the game-winner, as the Stampede completed the comeback.
Trumbull and Eisenstat each finished the game with two points to lead the team, while Rasmus Hansson continued his hot play in the Cheyenne crease, stopping 29 of 31 in the victory.
Forward Justus Saldeen led the Spartans with two assists on the night but goaltender Ian Dvorak allowed three goals on 44 shots in the loss.
The next night was more of the same, as the Spartans again jumped out to a 2-0 lead, only to watch it evaporate as the Stampede came from behind again to win it by a score of 4-3.
Justus Saldeen got the scoring started for Southern Oregon just 57 seconds into regulation and Tyler Spencer added on to it with a goal early in the second period to make it 2-0 Southern Oregon.
Ian Teal would score to pull Cheyenne within one at 5:22 of the period but just over three minutes later, Carl Edstrom extended the lead back to two for the Spartans, a lead which they’d carry with them into the third period.
Both teams had their chances in the third but the Stampede grabbed the momentum near the middle part of the period, as goals from Jacob Eisenstat and the second of the game from Ian Teal, scored just 32 seconds apart, knotted the game up at three and got the crowd back into it.
With time winding down in regulation and everything pointing to overtime, Branko Oktavec notched the game-winner with just 1:27 left before the buzzer to lift the Stampede to victory.
Teal’s three points led the way for Cheyenne in the win, while Thayne Trumbull, Jacob Eisenstat, Russell Armbruster and Laim Slyne each added two.
It was once again Rasmus Hansson picking up the win in net and looking very good in doing so, stopping 33 of the 36 shots the Spartans threw his way, while Jiri Ponikelsky didn’t fare as well for Southern Oregon, taking the loss while allowing four goals on 28 shots.
The finale was the tightest of the three contests, as the two evenly matched teams went back and forth all night, before the Stampede completed the sweep with a victory in the shootout.
After as scoreless opening frame, Arturs Buss’ power play goal gave the Spartans the early lead for the third straight game but Cheyenne answered with a power play goal of their own just 39 seconds later, thanks to Russell Armbruster.
Tyler Spencer’s short handed marker at 8:03 of the period gave the Spartans the lead back but it only lasted 1:05, as Branko Oktavec responded with a power play goal for Cheyenne to knot things up again.
With 1:14 left in the middle period, the Spartans broke through on the power play again to take their third lead of the game, as Troy Hillman put one home to make it 3-2, enabling Southern Oregon to once again again take a lead into the third period.
The comeback kids did it again however, as for the third straight game, the Stampede completed their comeback in the third and this time it was a short handed goal from defenseman Filip Oravec that tied things up at three.
After both overtime periods solved nothing, the two teams headed to a shootout to decide the game. Sticking to the trend, they traded goals early in the shootout, before Ian Teal won it in the fifth round for Cheyenne.
Oktavec and Oravec each finished the game with three points to lead the Stampede, while Buss’ two points was tops for Southern Oregon.
Sam Mallory gave Hansson the day off in the Cheyenne crease and got the win while stopping 47 of the 50 shots he faced and four of the five shootout chances.
John Posler got his first start in a Southern Oregon uniform and played well in the shootout loss, stopping 51 of 54 and three of five in the shootout.
The three losses are tough for Southern Oregon, as they led heading into the third period of every game but let it slip away each time.
They are playing much better lately and have figured a lot of the problems out that had plagued them early in the season, so they should be able to shake it off and move forward.
The Stampede overcame adversity three times and have to be happy, as their big scorers showed up when they needed them the most.
They’re starting to find their groove and with Hansson playing well in net, they’re becoming a very tough team to play against again.
Valencia Flyers (9-6-3, 4th in Western Division) vs. Long Beach Bombers (7-15-0, 5th in Western Division)
Home-and-home series played Friday in Valencia and Saturday in Lakewood, California
One of the longest lasting rivalries in the WSHL, the Long Beach Bombers and Valencia Flyers rekindled their disdain for one another with a home-and-home series over the weekend.
The Flyers rookies were on display in the opener on Friday night in Long Beach, as four of their five goals came from first-year players, helping lift the visitors to a 5-2 victory.
After a scoreless opening period, Zach Paxman’s goal 2:25 into the second got the scoring started and the Flyers out to a 1-0 lead but the league’s leading scorer, Filip Martinec, answered just a little over three minutes later to knot things up for the Bombers.
The Flyers then rattled off three straight goals to take control of the game, as defenseman Niklas Giers made it 2-1 before the end of the second period, before Luc Whyte and Jared Waldman extended the lead to 4-1 with goals early in the third.
Martinec’s second of the game would get the Bombers within two with just over seven minutes to go in regulation but just 25 seconds later, Austin Ehrlich provided the dagger for the Flyers, in the 5-2 win.
Ehrlich, Whyte and Blake Aguilar each finished the night with two points to lead the Flyers, while Martinec’s two goals was tops on the Bombers.
Mark Becica picked up the win in net, stopping all but two of the 32 shots he faced, while Talon Miller allowed five goals on 45 shots in the loss for Long Beach.
Things were tighter the next night but the Flyers ability to score goals in bunches enabled them to come from behind and win by a score of 4-3 in front of the home crowd.
Early in the second period, Filip Martinec’s second goal of the night gave the Bombers a 3-1 lead but the Flyers came roaring back, getting within one on a late second period goal from Wade Wylie and knotting things up early in the third on another from Austin Ehrlich.
With Bombers defenseman Marcus Rhodin in the penalty box for interference late in regulation, the Flyers struck on the power play to win the game, as Zach Paxman’s second of the game sealed the big victory.
Ehrlich’s three points led the Flyers once again, while Martinec’s two goals did the same for the Bombers, who have now lost seven straight games.
Mark Becica was solid again in net for the Flyers, stopping 18 of the 21 shots he faced, while Talon Miller was also good for the Bombers but got the loss regardless, allowing four goals on 50 shots.
The two wins for the Flyers are huge, especially coming against a team they’re battling for a playoff spot with. Josh Berge’s rookies continue to contribute and take the pressure off veterans like Austin Ehrlich, helping them remain one of the most tenacious teams in the league.
The Bombers continue to struggle to limit chances on their goaltender and although Miller was solid, he didn’t get enough help.
Having Tomas Nemeth up in the NAHL has hurt their offense but they still have enough firepower to score with anyone in the league, where they’ve struggled the most is defensively, with the loss of captain Guy LaPorte hurting the most.
San Diego Gulls (5-16-1, 6th in Western Division) @ Valencia Flyers
Single game played Sunday in Valencia, California
After two tough games against Long Beach, the Flyers looked a bit dreary on Sunday afternoon against the Gulls and San Diego took full advantage of it, winning by a score of 6-2.
I got a chance to speak with Gulls head coach Craig Carlyle earlier in the week and he told me that his team needed to feast on what should be a tired Flyers squad on Sunday and that is exactly what they did, pulling away as the game went along.
Their top forwards continued to shine in the win, as both rookie Michael Leone and veteran Drew DePalma picked up two goals and two assists in the win, while goaltender Erik Eidissen, who has shaken off a rough start to the season and started to play much better, got the win in net, stopping 46 of the 48 shots he faced.
Also continuing his hot play since coming to the team was Kalvis Ozols, who added two goals and two assists from the backend.
Will Barnett and Adam Papayoanou scored the Flyers two goals, while Jake Ireland gave Becica the day off in net and took the loss, allowing six goals on 30 shots.
The win for San Diego is huge, coming against a team they’re trying to catch in the standings. If they can continue to get scoring depth and solid goaltending, they’ll be able to battle for that playoff spot all season.
Hockey Wolf Three Stars of the Week
1. Chad Cesarz (Forward, El Paso Rhinos)- The El Paso Rhinos dominated the Wichita Jr. Thunder over three weekend games and a number of their forwards were able to get in on the scoring party. None were better than veteran Chad Cesarz however, who possesses one of the quickest releases in the league and used it to score six goals and add three assists in the sweep.
2. Peter Plesa (Forward, El Paso Rhinos)- A big reason for the Rhinos success this season has been their depth at the forward position, as Cory Herman has four lines that can all put the puck in the net. One of those lines features three brothers from Alberta, who have an uncanny ability to know where each other is at all times. Leading the trio of Plesa brothers is Peter, who with the help of his brothers Matthew and Nick, was able to notch five goals and four assists over the weekend in Kansas.
3. Branko Oktavec (Forward, Cheyenne Stampede)- The Cheyenne Stampede had to come from behind in each game to pick up a weekend sweep of the Southern Oregon Spartans. Hulking Slovakian forward Branko Oktavec played a pivotal role in each of those comebacks, picking up a timely goal in every game and finishing the weekend with five points.
Honorable Mentions: Phillip Wong (Idaho Jr. Steelheads), Sean Healy (Idaho Jr. Steelheads), Mark Shroyer (Fresno Monsters), Kyle Jelenski (Fresno Monsters), Trey Hughes (El Paso Rhinos), Keegan Hull (Wichita Jr. Thunder), Braden Smith (Wichita Jr. Thunder), Jacob Eisenstat (Cheyenne Stampede), Russell Armbruster (Cheyenne Stampede), Rasmus Hansson (Cheyenne Stampede), Arturs Buss (Southern Oregon Spartans), Tyler Spencer (Southern Oregon Spartans), Austin Ehrlich (Valencia Flyers), Zach Paxman (Valencia Flyers), Filip Martinec (Long Beach Bombers), Drew DePalma (San Diego Gulls), Michael Leone (San Diego Gulls), Kalvis Ozols (San Diego Gulls)
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