The Boulder Bison got four goals in the first 10 minutes of the game and rode them to victory, winning Game Three, 5-2, over the El Paso Rhinos for a 2-1 series victory and advancing to the Thorne Cup Finals.
The loss ends the season for the Rhinos, unable to keep momentum in the playoffs after going a franchise-best 47-5-0, the best record in the Western States Hockey League in the regular season.
After absorbing a 10-2 loss in Saturday's Game Two, Boulder was determined to make a statement and make it early against El Paso, and Daniel Turgeon came up with a rolling puck in the slot, firing it home just 12 seconds into the game.
Trying to equalize quickly and grab the momentum back from the visitors, the Rhinos were whistled for a costly penalty minutes later. Just 29 seconds into the resulting Bison power play, Boulder's Brendan Galley bounced the puck off of goalie Andrew Duff's glove and into the net at 4:45 of the first for a 2-0 lead.
Exactly two minutes later, Steven Shaffroth lifted his shot through a scrum at the crease for a 3-0 lead.
The Rhinos were reeling but the Bison weren't finished. Shaffroth whipped a wrister tipped by Turgeon, again catching Duff's glove. El Paso's Austin Balko tried desperately to swipe the puck off the goal line but was unable to make contact: 4-0 Boulder less than 10 minutes into the game, and the Bison had chased Duff from net.
Duff's replacement, Max Dizgun, did not give up a goal the rest of the night, but Boulder's neutral zone trap never allowed the Rhinos to build much momentum. Employed to great effect in its 3-2 Game One win Friday, the trap watered down El Paso's hard-skating offense by taking away possession time. Playing with the lead, the Bison could sell out on their defensive scheme, and did so; though the Rhinos weren't going to go quietly.
Josh Deloach threaded a low drive through a screen to beat Boulder goalie Taylor Fant at 6:51 of the second period on the power play for the home team's first goal, and Frankie Posillico put in Deloach's pass on another power play strike just 1:01 into the third to make it 4-2.
But sufficient time and possession were not to be had by the hosts. With Dizgun pulled as El Paso pressed for a third goal, Boulder won the puck in the Rhinos zone and Shaffroth popped in an empty net goal with nine seconds left.
Boulder unseats El Paso as the Mid-West Division champions after a three-year run for the Rhinos. The Bison will face the winner of the Western Division playoffs, which started Sunday night in Fresno, CA, as the Fresno Monsters host the defending champion Phoenix Polar Bears.
Boulder will also head to Marlborough, MA, in three weeks to represent the Western States Hockey League in the Junior A Tier III national championship tournament.