Thanksgiving is a great time for people to take a break from their busy lives and relax with their families but the Western States Hockey League’s momentum was only slowed on Thursday, as a handful of teams took to the ice over the holiday weekend.
Below is a summary of each weekend series/game:
Wichita Jr. Thunder (6-12-0, 4th in Midwest Division) @ El Paso Rhinos (14-3-1, 1st in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in El Paso, Texas
The Wichita Jr. Thunder made their first-ever trip to El Paso, for a three-game series beginning on Wednesday night and after three big defeats, they’re probably thankful they won’t have to see the Rhinos again this season.
The opener was close on the scoreboard after the opening period, as the host Rhinos held a 3-1 lead, before they went off for eight goals in the second period, en route to a 15-5 thumping.
The Rhinos scored three power play goals and three short-handed goals in the win and were led by captain Mikey Rivera, who amassed six points on the night.
Wichita was outshot and outplayed for the majority of the game but did have a bright spot in defenseman Alex O’Leary, who notched a hat-trick in his first game with the team.
After taking the next day off for Thanksgiving, the two teams battled it out on Friday and once again the Rhinos’ special teams was on display.
In a 14-2 victory, the Rhinos scored a league-record six shorthanded goals, two each coming from veteran forwards Tyler Basham and Rivera.
In the finale, the trend continued, as El Paso scored four power play goals and four more while shorthanded, in a 15-0 rout and series sweep.
In total, the Rhinos collected nine power play goals and 13 shorthanded markers, while outshooting the Jr. Thunder heavily in each game.
Wichita was never able to get much of anything going, despite having a ton of power play opportunities throughout the weekend. Top scorers Andrii Istominov and Jan Jindra were kept quiet and with little help, they were never able to get off the mat.
El Paso continues to play great hockey and prove they are one of the league’s elite, along with Idaho, Dallas and Fresno.
Cory Herman’s veterans are playing well, led by Basham and Rivera and their goaltending situation has improved as the season has gone on.
Idaho Jr. Steelheads (19-1-0, 1st in Northwest Division) @ Valencia Flyers (9-7-2, 3rd in Pacific Division)
Three-game series in Valencia, California
The Idaho Jr. Steelheads spent their holiday on the road and were actually in southern California for about 10 days, as they stuck around after sweeping San Diego the week prior, before heading to Valencia for their series with the Flyers.
Idaho was the better team throughout the opener on Wednesday, scoring six times in the opening period and cruising to a 7-3 victory.
Ivo Crhak, Dominik Gabaj and Stefan Brucato each collected three points in the win.
After taking Thursday off, the Flyers came back much better on Friday and had the game tied at four heading into the third period of game two.
Tyler Kruenegel scored twice for Idaho in the final period however, including an empty-netter that completed his hat-trick, in a 7-5 victory.
As expected, Brucato was the offensive catalyst for the Jr. Steelheads but goaltender Daniel Selby was the story of the game, stopping 27 of the 32 shots he faced, with his team was outshot for only the third time all season.
Hunter Jensen’s goal just over midway through the third period of the final game, tied the game for Valencia and sent it into overtime.
The most dangerous player in the league was left open in the extra period however and made the Flyers play, as Brucato put home his second of the game off of a sweet feed from Kirk Van Arkel, as Idaho took the sweep.
The Flyers fought valiantly and bounced back nicely after the debacle on Wednesday night. They played tough throughout the weekend and found ways to stick around but Idaho has too many different looks they can throw at you.
With the three road wins, the Jr. Steelheads have not lost on the road since November 25 of last year.
Long Beach Bombers (5-10-0, 5th in Pacific Division) @ Fresno Monsters (15-0-0, 1st in Pacific Division)
Three-game series in Fresno, California
It seems odd to say but the only perfect team left in the league has been flying under the radar early in the season. This past weekend, the Fresno Monsters looked to keep their pristine record intact with three against the Long Beach Bombers.
Despite many believing it would be a rebuilding year for Bryce Dale and company, the Monsters continue to plow through their opponents and took care of Long Beach in a penalty-filled series.
Veteran forward Nick McKee notched three assists in the opener, as Fresno outshot Long Beach heavily in a 7-0 shutout.
The Monsters got off to a great start in the middle game of the series, scoring six times in the opening period en route to a 10-4 win.
Shilo Vega continued his hot-streak with four points, while defenseman Tommy Nourie collected three helpers.
In the finale, Luke Rendino collected four points in another shutout, as goaltender Corey Foster stopped all 18 shots he faced in an 8-0 Fresno win and series sweep.
Long Beach struggled to keep up with the speed of the Monsters and didn’t give goaltender Jiri Sykora enough help to steal a game.
They have now lost five straight and 10 of their last 11, after getting off to a great start. Their big guns have been kept quiet but in their defense, they’ve played their last six games against two of the top teams in the entire league.
Fresno keeps getting scoring from different places and every game, it seems like someone new steps up.
Their goaltending has come around and their defense, let by a newly svelte Tommy Nourie, has been fantastic.
New Mexico Renegades (9-8-1, 4th in Mountain Division) @ Cheyenne Stampede (11-3-1, 2nd in Mountain Division)
Three-game series in Cheyenne, Wyoming
A lot of the attention in the Mountain Division has been going to the El Paso Rhinos but the new-look Cheyenne Stampede have quietly been putting together a strong campaign.
This past weekend they played host to the New Mexico Renegades, who are no longer the pushover and despite playing them tough, the Renegades dropped all three games, as Cheyenne swept the season series from them.
The Stampede scored four power play goals in the series opener and scored the last three goals of the game in a 7-4 win. Rugged forward Dorran Masters led the way in the victory, notching two goals on the night.
The Stampede rumbled out to a 6-0 lead in the first period of game two, led by two goals each from Noah Eckebrecht and Ryan Demyen. New Mexico came back strong in the second period but it wasn’t nearly enough, as the Stampede took game two by a score of 10-2.
New Mexico had their chances in the finale of the series but Sam Mallory was strong in net and Kevin Rosset notched a hat-trick in a 8-3 Cheyenne win.
The Renegades took a lot of penalties over the weekend and Cheyenne’s power play made them pay more often than not. They were outshot in every game and didn’t seem to have the same grit as they had shown in their previous few series.
Cliff Cook and John McCreary will definitely be making some changes for their next series, when they host the Boulder Bison this weekend.
The Stampede may not have as much flair as El Paso and they aren’t nearly as physical but they find ways to put the puck in the net and come at you in waves.
If they keep playing the way they have and getting better as they go, they can contend for the Mountain Division title.
Phoenix Knights (7-11-3, 5th in Mountain Division) @ Ontario Avalanche (12-8-0, 2nd in Pacific Division)
Three-game series in Ontario, California
The first-year Ontario Avalanche have quietly crept to the top of the Pacific Division and with a sweep of the Phoenix Knights over the weekend, are now second to only the Fresno Monsters.
Phoenix started the season off well but injuries have slowed them a bit and they don’t seem to be clicking like they were a few weeks back.
With 1:34 left in regulation of game one, Daniel Gowan’s goal sent the game into overtime for the Knights, before Alex Roihjert won the game for the host Avalanche.
Andrew Guzman and Michael Thomas each scored twice in game two and helped the Avalanche pull away late in a 5-1 victory.
In the finale, four different players notched a goal and an assist for Ontario, as they led 4-0 and held on for a 4-2 victory.
Phoenix needs to find a way to get back to the way they were playing to open the season and start putting more pucks in the net.
Jarrod Levos, who burst onto the scene as a rookie last season, has been surprisingly quiet but if he can heat up, so will the Knights’ offense.
Ontario is much like Cheyenne, in the fact that they find ways to grind out victories.
Their goaltending has been great, they have a steady defensive group and their offense battles the whole game; it’s not a fluke that they’re in second place in their division.
Southern Oregon Spartans (10-7-0, 3rd in Northwest Division) @ Seattle Totems (6-11-3, 4th in Northwest Division)
Two-game series in Mountlake Terrace, Washington
The fiercest rivalry in the league continued over the weekend, as one week after they clashed twice in Medford, Oregon, the Southern Oregon Spartans traveled north to take on the Seattle Totems.
The Spartans have had the upper hand in the season series so far and it continued over the weekend, as their offensive pressure took its toll on the Seattle defense.
Petr Novak’s goal with 26 seconds left in the third period of game one, tied the game at two and helped propel Seattle into overtime.
After the extra period proved nothing, the two teams went into a shootout, where goals from Joe Bordak and Mike Kowicki won it for the Spartans.
The shots were close again in game two but Southern Oregon took advantage of its opportunities and took the 5-1 win.
Tim Talty and Nick Stirmel each collected a pair of points in the win for the Spartans, while goaltender Sean Buckeley turned away 42 of the 43 shots he faced in the win.
Seattle is coming along and despite the losses; they played much better than they have in the previous few meetings. They are still young and finding their way but this team will come alive in the second half if they keep grinding.
The Spartans big guns have continued to heat up as the season has gone along and are finally hitting their stride. They aren’t at the level of Idaho yet but they can compete with anyone in the league and are as physical as you’ll see.
Dallas Ice Jets (17-1-0, 1st in Midwest Division) @ Dallas Snipers (7-8-2, 2nd in Midwest Division)
Singe game played Sunday in Plano, Texas
The battle of Dallas was the only single game of the weekend, as the Ice Jets made the short trip to visit the Snipers.
After being embarrassed the last time these two teams met, the Snipers were far more prepared and played their best game of the season, in a game that came down to the wire.
Veteran forward Shane Bonds had a goal and two assists to lead the way for the Snipers, who led 4-1 heading into the third period.
The Ice Jets proved why they are the team to beat in the Midwest Division by scoring three times in the third and forcing overtime.
Just over halfway through the extra frame, Joncarlo Westerlund scored off of a feed from Kellen Patrick, to complete the comeback and win the game for the Ice Jets.
The Snipers were on their game and may have deserved a win but the Ice Jets turned up the heat when it mattered most.
Behind the strong effort from Bonds, the Snipers were able to gain some momentum and there were a ton of positives for a team that has struggled the last few times out.
The Ice Jets faced some adversity and responded with a big win. They can score in bunches and it showed, as they came back like a team possessed.
They are comfortably atop the division but now know they can’t get complacent, as the Snipers can play.
Three-Stars of the Week
1. Mikey Rivera (Forward, El Paso Rhinos)- The top spot could have gone to a number of different Rhinos but captain Mikey Rivera was the most lethal. In three big victories over Wichita, the El Paso native collected seven goals and five assists.
2. Kevin Rosset (Forward, Cheyenne Stampede)- The Cheyenne Stampede are looking like a contender in the Mountain Division and Swiss-born forward Kevin Rosset has been a huge reason for it. In a sweep over New Mexico, Rosset collected eight points.
3. Dominik Gabaj (Forward, Idaho Jr. Steelheads)- When you think of Idaho forwards, the first name that comes to mind will surely be the league-leader in scoring, Stefan Brucato but a linemate of his actually leads the team in goals. Rookie forward Dominik Gabaj had a great weekend in Valencia, where he collected seven points in another Idaho sweep of the Flyers.
Honorable Mentions: Stefan Brucato (IDA), Tyler Kruengel (IDA), Nick McKee (FRE), Austin Browning (FRE), Tyler Basham (ELP), Michael Thomas (ONT), Tim Talty (SOR), Chad Cesarz (ELP)
The schedule opens up a bit this weekend, as teams continue to prepare for the Showcase. All of the action can be seen at fasthockey.com
Story by Brent Maranto does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Western States Hockey League