Apr. 02, 2012
El Paso, TX – Since September, 16 teams have been fighting to crown themselves champions of the Western States Hockey League and bring home the Thorne Cup. On an April Fools Sunday, that team was revealed to be the Idaho Junior Steelheads when they defeated the Dallas Ice Jets 6-5 in overtime thanks to a five goal night by Stefan Brucato.
It was a long but completely back and forth game. After the first period ended that saw Brucato get his first two goals for Idaho and Jefferson Wright and Christian Elsborg tallied one each for Dallas, everyone knew a shootout was about to ensue. Of course nobody could have predicted all but one of the remaining goals to be scored would happen in the second period but who’s guessing anyways, right?
Austin Rehwinkel opened up the scoring for the period with not one, but two goals within four minutes of each other. The first one was the third powerplay goal of four attempts for Dallas at that point. Crisp passing along what seemed to be a three-man point opened up a shot by Bryan Siersma that Rehwinkel deflected to give the Ice Jets their third lead of the game. The next one was even prettier as Austin Azurdia swung a behind-the-back pass from the blueline down low to Brandon Unser who deked out Jordyn Kaufer and passed it across the paint for Rehwinkel to jam home. This would be the biggest lead of the game for Dallas, 4-2.
The Junior Steelheads began fighting back immediately after Kaufer was pulled in favor of Josh Benton who had allowed six goals in 120 minutes in the post-season going in. But his presence would spark the team as they only allowed six shots the rest of the game and exactly two minutes after Rehwinkel’s previous goal, Brucato would bring Idaho to within one after a flurry of Junior Steelheads were batting away at the puck in the crease. However Azurdia would regain that two goal lead with one himself less than a minute later.
Just as it seemed Dallas was going to be able to ride this dominance into the dressing room, the second half of the period took a different turn. Brucato scored again to cut the deficit once again to just a single goal and then followed it up with the equalizer from a beautiful pass on the doorstep from Ben Hanus (Filip Kasaly would get the secondary assist). The third period was practically non-existent other than Idaho flaunting their defensive dominance and using their size to pick up the physical pace. No goals were scored and the refs put the whistle away all period long. Overtime however, there would be a different story.
After the ice was cut by the Zamboni, the buildup had become palpable. The two teams retook the ice and less than two minutes-in, Christian Elsborg was called for a Hooking penalty which could have gone either way. By the book, it met the requirements. However, given the circumstance, it is a ref’s judgment call. Once Elsborg sat, the puck was dropped. Clean passing would keep it in the zone for Idaho and once it got kicked out to the point, it was as if you knew what was about to happen next. Hanus ripped a shot that Michael Baldwin was in position to stop, until Jake Webber got just enough of a stick on it to alter the course of travel and the outcome of the game. Webber knew it went in before he even turned to look and the Idaho Junior Steelheads had successfully defended their title of Thorne Cup Champions.
It wasn’t all bad for Dallas (who were in fits with the referees after the game to say the least), as Baldwin brought home the honors of All-Tournament goalie and the silver medal for an expansion team is nothing to sneer at. On the other hand, Idaho brought home the Cup again and Brucato was named MVP of the tournament thanks largely in part to his historic game.
Overall it was everything you look for in a championship tournament: great entertainment, a fantastic product overall, and some major upsets that left people scratching their heads. The final standings for the tournament were 1. Idaho Junior Steelheads (4-0-0) 2. Dallas Ice Jets (2-1-1) 3. El Paso Rhinos (1-2-0) 4. Fresno Monsters (0-3-0). It was a wonderful way to close the book on possibly the best season of WSHL action yet. With new teams, new conferences, and new rivalries, the rebirth of the league in the AAU was nothing short of outrageously successful. So as players go home either dejected or jubilated to rest up, imagine the possibilities for next season.
Matt Prosser, El Paso Rhinos Beat Writer for JuniorHockey.com. Founder of Fifty8 Productions and freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. Voice of California State University, Sacramento Hockey and host of The Sports Cycle with Matt Prosser on KSSU1580 Sacramento. For comments and writing ventures e-mail Matt@Fifty8productions.com. Follow on Twitter @MattProsser58 or visit www.kssusportsycle.com.