Nick Gualano might be a marked man when the Tulsa Rampage come to El Paso next weekend. For the third straight night, the hard-shooting Chicagoland forward scored the game-winning goal for the Rhinos in Tulsa, giving El Paso a 3-2 win and salting away a fourth-straight Mid-West Division championship.
Gualano scored the game-winning shootout goals both Friday and Saturday night, too, and leads the Western States Hockey League with 43 goals.
The Rhinos actually clinched the Mid-West title Saturday night, surviving in the shootout after Gualano successfully repeating the shot that won them an improbable comeback win in Friday\’s series opener — stick-side, high, on tough goalie Michael Maczynski.
Rampage forward Derrick Pilatic opened the scoring at 9:38 of the first period, followed by El Paso\’s Garrett Poland at 14:12.
The Rhinos\’ Anthony Knuth notched the only goal of the second period, scoring just 2:53 in to give El Paso a 2-1 lead.
But Tulsa\’s Bobby Watson tied the game with a goal at 13:30.
Again, it was Gualano who finished things for the visitors, scoring with just 2:01 left in regulation.
Rhinos\’ goaltender Max Dizgun made the score stick over the final minutes and finished the night having stopped 27 of 29 shots, securing a pleasant bus ride back to El Paso.
The Rhinos will strive to keep their focus over the final nine games of the regular season, but knowing they have secured home-ice advantage throughout the Mid-West playoffs beginning Friday, Feb. 26.
Second place Boulder was idle this weekend with 48 points and 12 games and 24 points left to claim. El Paso\’s sweep of the Rampage gives the Rhinos a record of 38-5-0 with 76 points.
Tulsa (19-18-3, 41 points) can still catch Boulder in the standings which would give the Rampage home ice advantage in the first round of the Mid-West Division playoffs, but Tulsa and the Bison appear to be on a course to face each other in that opening best-of-three series.
The San Antonio Diablos edged New Mexico Sunday, holding the fourth and final playoff spot with 33 points. Should the Diablos finish in fourth, they will head to El Paso to take on the Rhinos in round one.
All of that does not discount next weekend\’s series against a frustrated Tulsa team. The Rhinos and the Rampage have locked horns for the Mid-West championship before and Tulsa will be trying to send a message in the teams\’ final regular season series beginning Friday, Jan. 29.
For tickets and information, contact the El Paso Rhinos front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825) or go to www.elpasorhinos.com.