Rhinos forward Todd Thomas scored the game-winning goal and goalie Trent Casper stopped 30 of 31 shots as El Paso beat the defending Mid-West Division champion Boulder Bison, 4-1, Saturday, reclaiming the title Boulder won from the Rhinos here last season.
El Paso swept the Bison in the best-of-three division finals and earned the right to face the Idaho Jr. Steelheads next weekend in the Western States Hockey League’s Thorne Cup Finals. The Rhinos will host Idaho for all games in the best-of-three finals series, beginning next Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. MDT and, if necessary, Game Three Sunday at 5:30 p.m. MDT.
El Paso defeated the Steelheads, 2-1, at the WSHL Showcase in Las Vegas, NV, last December.
In a game that mirrored Friday’s 5-3 Rhinos’ win in the division finals opener, both teams were scoreless going into the first intermission before the hosts struck first. Mike Fazio tucked in a short rebound off Bison goaltender Zane Sampson to break through at 9:12 of the second frame.
Then, just 32 seconds later, El Paso’s Todd Thomas wristed in a shot from above the right circle that short-armed Sampson for a 2-0 Rhinos’ lead.
Shell-shocked after the two quick goals, Boulder and Sampson had trouble regaining composure, and El Paso’s forecheck kept yielding the puck in the Bison zone. But both goalie and defense survived, and the next goal was Boulder’s, as Chris Rolfe laced his shot under Casper to get the visitors within one at 9:54 of the third period.
But the hosts answered as WSHL leading scorer Tyler Beasley notched his 103rd point of the season and his 44th goal at 13:18.
Centerman Juan Tellez wrapped the scoring just over two minutes later, stopping a Boulder clearance attempt with his stick, even as momentum carried him away from the puck. Tyler Ridgedell advanced the play, then wheeled it back to Tellez who danced his way through the slot for the score.
And the Steelheads await, as they dispatched the two-time defending WSHL champion Phoenix Polar Bears for the Western Division crown.
Both El Paso and Idaho will represent the WSHL in the Junior A, Tier III National Championship Tournament in early April.
For tickets and information about next weekend’s Thorne Cup Finals, contact the Rhinos’ front office at 915/479.PUCK (7825) or go to www.elpasorhinos.com.