A.J. Tesoriero scored a short-handed goal in the second period that turned out to be the game-winner, as the Boulder Bison survived a furious El Paso rally to take Game One of the WSHL's Mid-West Division championship series, 3-2.
The Rhinos loss is their first to another Mid-West Division team in El Paso's playoff history, forcing a must-win Game Two Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. as the hosts will be trying to force a decisive Game Three, Sunday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. MST.
On their heels from the drop of the puck, the Rhinos took nearly half the game to come to terms with Boulder's neutral zone trap. It took away El Paso's forechecking, not allowing the Rhinos high-flying offense to get off the ground.
Special teams played a huge role, too -- as is usually the case in playoff hockey. El Paso's frustration with the Bison's trap showed in a series of penalties it took throughout the first two periods.
The Rhinos survived a two-man advantage for Boulder in a scoreless first period, getting some clutch goaltending from Andrew Duff. But in the second frame, El Paso wasn't so lucky.
A hooking penalty on Frankie Posillico and a cross-checking call on Mike Bottcher gave the visitors just under a minute of 5-on-3 power play, and the Bison took advantage for the opening goal, as Jordan Roberts slid the puck through Duff's crease for Daniel Turgeon's one-timer at 9:35.
Although the Rhinos were able to kill off the rest of the Boulder power play, Jeremy Rolfe came up with the puck in a scrum at the end of the penalty, beating Duff at 11:25 for a 2-0 lead.
But Tesoriero made the play of the night, as an awkward bounce of the puck on an El Paso power play split the two Rhinos defenders at the Boulder blue line. Tesoriero had only to tap it ahead for the breakaway on Duff, getting the goalie down on the ice before backhanding the puck through the only space Duff left open for a 3-0 Bison lead at 15:08.
On a two-man advantage of their own, the Rhinos finally got into the game a few seconds later, as Nick Gualano shot the puck off of Boulder goalie Taylor Fant and into the net at 15:57.
Anthony Knuth scored on the tip drill, making it 3-2 by redirecting a power play blast from Kyle Shapiro at 12:22 of the third period.
But the Bison, behind Fant and a defense that allowed few rebounds and second chances under a withering assault by the hosts, made the one-goal margin stick the rest of the game.
Coach Brent Cullaton's first-year Bison franchise outshot El Paso, 15-5, in the opening period, although the Rhinos' siege of the Boulder zone in the third period allowed them the edge in in the final shot tally, 32-30.
Another telling stat: though Boulder's second goal was scored even strength, every one of the five goals was a direct result of special teams play, as the Rhinos irritation showed in taking bad penalties before settling down in the second period. The hosts struggled to find footing against the only team in the Mid-West Division to have beaten them in the regular season -- and now, for the first time ever, in the playoffs.
El Paso's streak as the defending three-time division champ, a berth in the Thorne Cup Finals and the trip to the Junior A Tier III national championship tournament that goes with it will all be on the line Saturday night.
For tickets and information, contact the Rhinos front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825), or go to www.elpasorhinos.com.