The unpredictably of the regular season certainly carried over into the Thorne Cup playoffs, as although three of the four #1 seeds (El Paso Rhinos, Fresno Monsters and Phoenix Knights) held true and won their divisions, the #2 seed Ogden Mustangs shocked the hockey world by taking down the three-time defending champion Idaho Jr. Steelheads.
Below is a summary of each playoff series, all of which were of the best-of-three variety:
#1: El Paso Rhinos win Midwest Division Title with 2-0 series victory over #3: Texas Brahmas
Games played at the Events Center in El Paso, Texas
The top team in the league during the regular season didn’t slow down for a second in the post-season, despite being assured of a spot in the Thorne Cup Finals as hosts of the event this year. Cory Herman’s team made quick work of the third-seed Texas Brahmas, winning by scores of 7-0 and 5-2, to capture their seventh division title.
The Rhinos controlled game one in every facet from start to finish, as they got off to a great start, outshooting the Brahmas 16-4 in the first period and took a 3-0 lead, never looking back in a 7-0 shutout.
Nick Plesa got the scoring started at 6:39 of the opening frame, before two of the Rhinos’ three additions from the San Diego Gulls, defenseman Kalvis Ozols and forward Drew DePalma, extended it to 3-0 before the end of the period.
Just over midway through the second period, DePalma’s second of the night made it 4-0, before Tom Bartel and David Nelson tacked on to make it a commanding 6-0 El Paso lead after 40 minutes of play.
Texas put together a solid third period but still couldn’t sneak any shots past Rhinos goaltender Bryce Fink, who stopped all 24 shots he faced to earn the shutout in net, while Eric Baldwin, the third member of group that came over from San Diego, added a short handed marker to get to the final score of 7-0.
Bartel led all scorers with three points on the night, while Baldwin, DePalma, Nelson, Ozols, Austin Hoff and Chris Wilhite all had two points for the Rhinos.
Ryan Mulka took the loss in net for Texas, playing all of the first and third periods, while Oliver Eklund took over for the middle 20.
Mulka stopped 19 of 23 total, including a number of big saves with the game well in-hand in the third and Eklund stopped 8 of 11 in his period of work.
Give the Brahmas credit, as even with the knowledge that they’d be back in El Paso just over a week from now for the Thorne Cup Finals regardless of the series outcome, they came back hard in game two and made it interesting until the end.
The Rhinos were just too much however, as they broke a 1-1 tie with two goals in the second period and continued on to win by a score of 5-2.
A Kalvis Ozols power play blast got the scoring started and El Paso out to a 1-0 lead at 7:00 of the opening period, in which the Rhinos outshot the Brahmas 15-5 but Oliver Eklund was strong in net for Jeremy Law and kept his team in the game.
The Brahmas then got even on their first goal of the weekend at 12:53 of the period, as forward Austin Murray deflected Jimmy Anderson’s point shot home.
The Rhinos swarmed at the end of the period and nearly took the lead back but Eklund made a handful of big stops to get his team into the locker room tied at one.
The Rhinos came right back out in the second period and threw another 15 shots on Eklund however, converting twice and taking a 3-1 lead into the third.
Drew DePalma, who had one of his best weekends since coming to the team, gave the Rhinos the lead for good with his goal 1:10 into the middle frame and David Nelson notched another at 9:19.
Looking to creep back in, the Brahmas got back within one early in the third, as Chris Stovall, who was their most active player on the night, put one home off a turnover at 2:21 to make it 3-2.
The Rhinos came right back and made it 4-2 on a nice passing play while on the power play, as veteran d-man Chris Wilhite, who recently broke the franchise record for most games played by a defenseman, took a sweet feed from Nick Plesa and placed his shot right under the bar at 8:05.
Before the fans had even gotten the chance to sit down, Austin Hoff banged one home just 25 seconds later, all but icing the game for the Rhinos, as it took the air right out of the Brahmas’ bench.
Things would stay relatively calm late, as the Rhinos held on to win the Midwest Division title and didn’t have much in the celebration department, as their ultimate goal is still a few days away.
Baldwin, Nelson, Ozols and Wilhite all notched two points to lead the Rhinos, while Adam Vay stopped 21 of the 23 shots he faced to earn the win on his birthday.
Dalton Foster’s two assists led Texas and Eklund took the loss in net, allowing five goals on 38 shots.
The Rhinos stayed perfect in 2014 y sweeping their way through the divisional portion of the playoffs, as they dispatched the Dallas Snipers last weekend and followed it up with another strong performance against the Brahmas, while never really being in danger of losing any of the four games.
Cory Herman was able to get everyone in on the action, both goaltenders played well and they showed more discipline than they have been, which will be huge going into the Thorne Cup Finals, where most team can make them pay.
They’d likely be considered favorites anywhere the finals were being played but the Rhinos even more lethal at home and it will take a near flawless effort(s) to keep them from raising the Thorne Cup in on April 6.
Jeremy Law tried a couple of different things to slow the El Paso attack, including going to a neutral zone trap on Friday night and although his strategies didn’t result in any wins, Texas was able to hold their own against a team that has been blowing people out regularly. If they can find a way to convert on a few more of their chances, including their power play opportunities, they can compete with just about anyone.
As one of only two non-division winners in the six-team event, the Brahmas will be playing with nothing to lose and as we saw a couple of years ago when the Dallas Ice Jets went on their Thorne Cup run, those type of teams aren’t to be slept on.
#1: Phoenix Knights win Midwest Division Title with 2-1 series victory over #3: Colorado Jr. Eagles
Games played at The Ice Den in Chandler, Arizona
Some teams make a habit of playing through adversity and that is exactly what the Phoenix Knights have done over the last few weekends, as they fell behind 1-0 in each of their two divisional round playoff series, only to battle back and win the final two games.
After dropping game one of the divisional finals on Friday to the first-year Colorado Jr. Eagles, they roared back to take games two and three and are the 2014 Mountain Division Champions.
Mitch Cobby had a great game in Friday night’s opener, as the forward scored at even strength, while on the power play and while short handed but the Jr. Eagles got another solid effort from Scott Smoot and held off a late comeback bid in a 4-3 victory.
Playing alongside Mattias Marten, his linemate when the two were with the Arizona Redhawks, Cobby notched a hat trick and Marten assisted on two of the goals but the Knights let Phoenix score two late second period goals and could never get back even again.
Scott Smoot, one of the three additions from Colorado State University’s ACHA club team, got Colorado out to a lead with an unassisted goal at 10:53 of the opening frame.
After a Tanner Ulland penalty shot chance was turned away by Knights goaltender Alex Taylor, the Jr. Eagles took a 2-0 lead just 1:23 later anyway, as RJ Haenze converted at 4:29 of the second period.
Then Cobby, who finished the regular season tied for fourth in league scoring with 90 points, took over, scoring at even strength at 7:55 and on the power play at 13:34 to knot things up and give the Knights some life.
The Jr. Eagles, who have shown the ability to score in bunches, came back with two more of their own before the end of the period however, as Collin Abitz made it 3-2 at 16:01 and Smoot put home his second of the game, which would hold up to be the game winner, at 18:41.
The Knights came out hard in the third and really carried play, getting within one just 2:59 in, as Cobby completed his hat trick while short handed but they could never tie it up, as Quinn Wold stood strong in net to hold on for the win.
Wold won his third straight playoff game, after winning games two and three in Cheyenne last week, as he stopped 31 of the 34 on the night, while Smoot led the offensive charge with his two goals.
Cobby and Marten led the way for Phoenix in the loss, while Alex Taylor dropped to 0-2-0 in the playoffs, allowing four goals on 32 shots.
The Knights bounced back in a big way the next night however, as Ryan McNeely, Jordan Cullum and Mattias Marten combined for 10 points in a 9-1 win.
Phoenix jumped out to a 4-0 first period lead on goals by the aforementioned Cullum and Marten, as well as veterans Matt Gamblin and Colin Bresnehan.
Robert Smith then pushed the lead to 5-0 early in the second but was answered just minutes later by Nick Davidson, who got the Jr. Eagles on the board at 4:02.
Phoenix just jumped right back on the horse however, as a goal from Brynton MacNab and Marten’s second of the game made it 7-1 after 40 minutes of play.
Not slowing down in the third, McNeely and Cullum each added their second goals of the night, in the 9-1 smashing.
Luke Stripp, who was the back-up to Alex Taylor in both of Phoenix’ game one losses, was strong in net again, picking up the win with a 26-save effort, while Bresnehan, MacNab and Robert Crisci joined Cullum, Marten and McNeely with multi-point efforts.
Wold was pulled after just 11:28 of playing time in the Colorado crease, as he allowed three goals on seven shots before Eric Messer took over and stopped just 18 of 24.
In the only game three of the divisional finals, the two teams locked it down defensively in the opening period on Sunday and headed to the second still scoreless.
Mitch Cobby’s goal 1:51 into the middle stanza gave the Knights the lead and they never let it go, in a 5-1 victory.
Cobby’s goal got the scoring started at 1:51 and defenseman Kelby Minshull made it 2-0 while on the power play at 10:13.
The Jr. Eagles top line then got them on the board at 13:49, as Collin Abitz scored off assists from Scott Smoot and Mitch Coan to pull Colorado within one.
Not letting the Jr. Eagles establish any type of momentum, the Knights came out hard to begin the third and Robert Crisci gave the home team a two-goal lead back at 1:15, before Mattias Marten made it 4-1 at 5:32.
Nick Kujawa’s goal at 9:38 provided the dagger, as Phoenix held on for the 5-1 win.
Marten and Kujawa each finished the game with three points to lead the Knights, while Luke Stripp stopped 25 of 26 in net, to move his record to 4-0-0 in the playoffs.
Quinn Wold got the start for Colorado after a rough outing the night before and was better but still took the loss while stopping 21 of 26.
The Phoenix Knights have probably faced ups and downs this season than any team that will be in El Paso on April 2, as they started off red-hot, cooled down considerably, hit a few more bumps but found a way to finish strong.
They know how to play from behind, which is huge in a short tournament and the biggest thing going for them right now is the play of their top forwards, as Cullum, Cobby, Marten, McNeely and a handful of depth guys are all on top of their game and Stripp has been perfect in net.
Colorado’s Cinderella run finally came to a halt but not without a fight, as Steve Haddon’s team made it tough on the top seed but just couldn’t find a way to pull it out after taking game one.
In just one season, the Jr. Eagles did a fine job of situating themselves near the top of a tough division and with more local rivals coming into the division this fall, they should continue to be one of the elites moving forward.
#2: Ogden Mustangs win Northwest Division Title with 2-0 series victory over #1: Idaho Jr. Steelheads
Games played at Manchester Ice and Events Centre in McCall, Idaho
The Ogden Mustangs have had the look all season of a team that could get hot and make some noise in the playoffs and that’s exactly what they’ve done. Playing some of the best hockey in team history, the Mustangs followed up an impressive sweep of Salt Lake City last week by going into McCall and dethroning the Idaho Jr. Steelheads, who had never lost a playoff series at home previously.
Jake Laime’s boys, who are playing a determined brand of hockey, jumped out to a 3-0 lead to take the home crowed completely out of the picture and never let Idaho get back to even, winning game one by as core of 5-3.
A recent commit to Castleton State College, forward Simon Teodrosson nabbed the first two goals of the contest, scoring on the power play at 2:55 and 3:36 of the opening frame to make it 2-0 Ogden.
The silky Swede then assisted on Brody Decker’s goal at 16:07 of the period, which made it 3-0 at the time.
Idaho fought back though, notching two power play goals of their own before the end of the period to take some momentum back, as Randy Patzner converted at 17:41 and Jesper Jensen did the same at 19:39.
After both teams locked it down in a scoreless second period, the Mustangs came out hard to begin the third and took a two-goal lead back on Schuyler Seyfert’s marker at 7:04 of the period but battling back, Dak Dice pulled the Steelies right back within one just 2:18 later.
With Idaho on the power play late in regulation and looking to knot things up, the Mustangs got a monumental goal from another key veteran, as Sean Haltam put home the exclamation mark, scoring short handed at 16:41 in a 5-3 Ogden win.
Teodorsson finished the game with two goals and two assists to lead the Mustangs, while Tyler Fallica stopped 32 of 35 in another impressive performance in goal.
Dice, Jensen and Hunter Lester each had two points for Idaho in the loss, while Sean Healy allowed five goals on 31 shots in net.
It was another tight one the next night and the Mustangs took a lead four separate times, with the final goal, scored by Jimmy Peplinski, holding up as the game-winner in a 4-3 win and series sweep.
A pair of defensemen traded goals in the opening frame, as Cam Russell got Ogden out to a 1-0 lead at 7:20 but Ben Hull answered for Idaho while on the power play at 15:11.
After neither team was able to put the puck in the net for most of the middle frame, they combined to score three goals over the last 4:01 of the period.
Sean Haltam got Ogden back ahead with his goal at 15:59, only to see another Ben Hull power play goal pull Idaho even again at 18:19.
With the two teams looking like they’d head into the intermission tied at two, Jon Mencer scored a huge unassisted power play goal with just 44 seconds left in the period to make it 3-2 Ogden.
4:12 into the third, Idaho pulled even yet again and on another power play marker, to boot, as Randy Patzner put one home to make it 3-3.
Just 3:13 later however, the Mustangs took the lead for good, as Peplinski, who has shown a penchant for showing up during big moments, scored a beauty at 7:25 and it held up as the game-winner, as the Mustangs won the Northwest Division Title.
Dusty Watt and Simon Teodorsson each notched two assists to lead the offensive charge, while Fallica was strong in net yet again, stopping 31 of 34 in the win.
Victor Carlsson led Idaho with three assists on the night and Sean Healy, who hadn’t lost two straight games all season, stopped 25 of 29 in net.
After a couple seasons of falling short of expectations, the Mustangs have burst onto the scene as one of the premiere programs in the WSHL, not only with their play on the ice but in the recurring world, where Jake Laime has already moved a handful of players on to college this year.
They play hard and have a rare combination of size, skill and speed and got it all working against Idaho, as they prevailed in a very tough place to play.
They head into El Paso with loads of confidence and playing like a team determined.
Idaho hasn’t been the same since losing a few key players, including Kirk Van Arkel, August Von Ungern-Sternberg and Jan Blasko but still played well against a skilled team and can compete with anyone with the systems they have in place.
They dropped two close games and had trouble solving Fallica, who was one of the few goaltenders to outplay Healy this season.
They aren’t done yet however, as they earned the wild card berth in the Thorne Cup Finals, as the team that lost in the divisional finals with the best regular season record, so they’ll still have a shot at their fourth straight Thorne Cup Title. They have a few things they need to iron out but I wouldn’t count them out for a second.
#1: Fresno Monsters win Western Division Title with 2-0 series victory over #2: Ontario Avalanche
Games played at Gateway Ice Center in Fresno, California
It seems the Fresno Monsters are always atop of the Western Division but for whatever reason, they have trouble carrying over their play into the post-season.
In their defense, they have been to the Thorne Cup Finals each of the last two seasons but just can’t find the same chemistry as it goes along and have ultimately faltered at some point.
This post-season, they have completely turned that around, as after sweeping the Long Beach Bombers, who many thought would be able to pull an upset, they put a stamp on of the most impressive seasons in team history, as they controlled the Ontario Avalanche in two big victories to win the division.
A roster full of veterans likely remembered back to this time a year ago, when the first-year Bay Area Seals celebrated their Western Division Title on the Monsters home ice and the bad taste that left in their mouths, as Bryce Dale’s team had their way with a very good Avalanche squad.
It started ominously on Friday night however, as Mark Readman’s goal just 1:50 into regulation got the visitors out to a 1-0 lead.
From that very moment on however, it was all Monsters, as they scored nine straight goals and didn’t slow down until the final buzzer in a 9-1 smashing.
Filip Winkler and Evan Ingram, two of their better players last weekend against Long Beach, gave the Monsters a 2-1 lead before the end of the opening frame to take back the momentum heading into the intermission.
Mike Nolan and Justin Plate each tallied twice in the second, while Kyle Jelenski and Conner Osborne chipped in with one each as well, making it 8-1 after 40 minutes of play, before Nico Wilton made it the final score with his goal in the third.
In total, Fresno outshot Ontario, who won two of the three games in Fresno less than a month ago, 59-20 for the game, including 28-6 in the second period alone.
Even the Monsters goaltending, which was subpar last weekend, was strong, as Austin Piquette stopped 19 of 20 for the win in net, while Nolan, Plate and defenseman Mark Shroyer led the offense with three points each.
Also enjoying multi-point games were Austin Browning, Gunnar Dircks, Mike Fabie, Michael Freeman and Evan Ingram.
Daniel Cepila was pulled after 47:12 of work in the Ontario crease, in which he stopped 33 of 39 shots, while back-up Drake Koegel stopped just 17 of 20 in his 12:48 of playing time.
Things were much tighter the next night but the Monsters were able to get out to a 2-0 first period lead and hold on late, in a 2-1 victory.
Mike Fabie, who has really come on as of late, got the scoring started with his goal at 6:08 of the opening frame and Evan Ingram made it 2-0 at 14:23.
The Avalanche came back in the second and got within one on a goal by Lubomir Fetkovic just over midway through but neither team would score again, as the Monsters locked it down defensively.
Austin Piquette stopped 21 of the 22 shots he faced and benefitted from great defensive play in front of him, while picking up the win for the Monsters.
Drake Koegel did well to stop 37 of 39 to keep Ontario in it but wound up taking the loss for the Avs.
With their so-so play down the stretch in the regular season, many believed the Monsters would hit some bumps in the playoffs but they went full speed ahead and played some of their best hockey of the year.
With a roster filled with veterans, Bryce Dale got his boys to compete at a very high level and knock off two strong teams in convincing fashion.
The only question in last weekend’s victories over Long Beach was goaltending but with the way Piquette played this weekend, the Monsters will head to their third straight Thorne Cup Finals with very few weaknesses and as one of only two teams this season to outlast the mighty Rhinos.
Ontario had a great run in just their second season in the WSHL, as Chris Shaw’s boys fought back from down 1-0 to Valencia last weekend to win the final two games in overtime and clawed back into game two in Fresno, after starting slow and never recovering in game one.
Shaw has helped build a team that should contend every year in a tough division and with the way he recruits, especially back home in Canada, expect them to come back even stronger in the fall.
HockeyWolf Three Stars of the Week
1. Mattias Marten (Forward, Phoenix Knights)- The skilled Swede notched three goals and five assists to help pull the Knights out of another 1-0 series hole, as they took the final two games from Colorado to earn the Mountain Division title.
2. Simon Teodorsson (Forward, Ogden Mustangs)- The recent Castleton State College commit, Teodorsson is another nifty Swedish forward who can take over a game. After being held scoreless in two games against Salt Lake City last weekend, he notched two goals and four assists to help his Mustangs go into Idaho and knock off the champs.
3. Evan Ingram (Forward, Fresno Monsters)- A lot has been said about the play of the Fresno Monsters veterans this season but the handful of rookies on the roster have been just as good. In a series sweep of Ontario this weekend, forward Evan Ingram notched two goals and an assist, while also playing strong in every situation he was put into and is now tied for the team lead with eight playoff points.
Honorable Mentions: Eric Baldwin (El Paso Rhinos), Drew DePalma (El Paso Rhinos), Chris Wilhite (El Paso Rhinos), Chris Stovall (Texas Brahmas), Dalton Foster (Texas Brahmas), Ryan McNeely (Phoenix Knights), Luke Stripp (Phoenix Knights), Mitch Cobby (Phoenix Knights), Collin Abitz (Colorado Jr. Eagles), Scott Smoot (Colorado Jr. Eagles), Tyler Fallica (Ogden Mustangs), Cam Russell (Ogden Mustangs), Victor Carlsson (Idaho Jr. Steelheads), Ben Hull (Idaho Jr. Steelheads), Austin Piquette (Fresno Monsters), Mark Shroyer (Fresno Monsters), Lubomir Fetkovic (Ontario Avalanche), Ben Meadows (Ontario Avalanche)